Last weekend I was at the Midwest Political Science Association conference in Chicago. While there I attended a neat roundtable on the 2012 election, featuring blog-stars Nate Silver and Ezra Klein, as well as some political science folks with pretty prominent online presences (Larry Bartels, John Sides, Drew Linzer, Simon Jackman, Lynn Vavreck).
One interesting question was posed: was the result of the presidential election inevitable? Now, you can think about this a few different ways. Obviously, there’s always a possibility of radical changes. I mean, if there had been a terrorist attack that was clearly Obama’s fault and did significant damage, you’d have to think Romney wins. That is, of course, what the Right wanted Benghazi to be.
But assuming all external conditions remain the same, was there a pathway to Republican victory?
One panelist (Jackman, I think) suggested that Romney could have got it done if he had a better message. Basically: “Obama’s a nice guy but he’s out of his depth. Bring me in and I’ll get things done.” Another panelist responded (I think quite rightly): we should be deeply skeptical of any argument that says the election would have gone differently if a politician had said something different.
I think that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, you’ll almost always find that whatever language they’re ‘supposed’ to use is already IN USE. If it doesn’t become the meta-narrative of the campaign it’s usually because it simply doesn’t have the stickiness that the pundit thinks it does.
Second, while I’m intrinsically skeptical of this argument, it nevertheless seems like we should assume that the pros know what they’re doing. If they are not using a certain argument front and center, it’s most likely because they have good poll-data or good reasons to think it won’t sell well. Of course, simple deference on stuff like this would be crazy. Political science certainly can play the role of sabermetrics to the traditionalism of political institutions. But the political campaigns have SO MUCH more data to work with than political scientists. These are not fly-by-night operations, Mark Penn notwithstanding. All of which is to say: our impulse should be to assume that the campaigns are doing a pretty good job.
Third, while it’s very easy to see how certain kinds of appeals could garner new votes, it’s often harder to see how the sort of campaign that would be necessary to get those votes will erode their base of support. But, of course, if you gain one new vote and lose an existing one then you haven’t actually gained anything.
And that’s the real rub of it. Romney in retrospect looks like a somewhat weak candidate to some people, for a variety of reasons. But almost all of those reasons stem from the basic obligations imposed by his potential voter pool. He lost a lot of Hispanic voters due to his support for ‘self deportation’ but it’s not like he could have simply adopted a pro-immigration stance. The party wouldn’t have allowed it. Lots of people lamented that the Romney of the first debate wasn’t the Romney of the whole campaign. But if that guy was front and center, his support from the right would likely have plummeted. And so on.
None of which is to say that it’s impossible to imagine a Republican winning the election, but it really is difficult to figure out where the extra 4% of votes could have come from, without eroding the 47% he did get. Which also helps to explain why Romney was pretty much the ‘inevitable’ nominee – at least after Perry imploded, Pawlenty backed out, and the other viable names (Jeb Bush, Christie, Mitch Daniels, etc.) didn’t pursue campaigns. It’s not that Romney was a perfect candidate; it’s just that no one else was going to be able to construct a coalition of voters that could hold together for any length of time.