Through this campaign year, the political scientist Samuel Popkin of the University of California (San Diego), author of the recent book about presidential campaigns called The Candidate, has weighed in on the course of the race. Here is one from late September, with links to some other installments.
Now for his last dispatch before the election, Popkin gives us a "pre-mortem." He works from the assumption that if all current indications hold, President Obama wins, Mitt Romney loses, and the margin is clear enough to spare us prolonged recounts, legal battles, and other complications. Here goes. Again, for the record, this is part of the daylong Festival of Hourly Posts to distract us all from the last spasm of the campaign. I've added emphasis in his message.
Q. Greetings, Sam. I know that you've been revving up to do a pre-mortem on the 2012 campaign, before it's actually finished. Today's the last chance. So what do you say?
Popkin: I'm writing a pre-mortem of the election because if Mitt Romney wins on Tuesday, it will be weeks before I understand where I went wrong. Nate Silver, Simon Jackman, and Simon Wang do independent, sophisticated statistical integration of state and local polls, and all predict an Obama victory to be highly probable.
Beyond poll-crunching, however, there are other key signs that Obama is on his way to serving a second term. Republican Govs. Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell, by praising President Obama, and New York's formerly Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, by endorsing him, are not leading their supporters to Obama; they are following them to protect their own political futures because they believe Obama will win. Bloomberg wants to preserve his centrist credentials, and there is no easier way to separate from Romney then by emphasizing the urgency of dealing with climate change. Christie governs a state in which the president is popular; his sudden admiration of Obama benefits both of them at the expense of Romney, who will have no way of paying Christie back if he loses. McDonnell was an early supporter of the Ryan budget, but now is backing away from the devilish details in that budget--like slashing FEMA.
After every presidential-election campaign, I rethink the implications of two kinds of surprises: events that surprised me by mattering more than I expected, and, like Sherlock Holmes and the hound that never barked, the events that didn't happen. An incumbent is evaluated more on his record than on his campaign, so my focus here is on the challenger's campaign.
First note that the rationalizations and finger-pointing are already leaking out from the Romney campaign and the Republican Party. I believe the leakers are engaged in "myth-making" to overstate the importance of one or more of three factors: Tropical Storm Sandy, the first debate, or the personal failings of Gov. Romney.
Myth one is that Sandy defeated Mitt Romney. On Oct. 31, two days after Sandy battered the Eastern Seaboard, Karl Rove wrote that the national numbers favored Romney. By this weekend, he was giving interviews about the October surprise that took the wind out of the Romney campaign.
If Romney stalled because Sandy deprived him of news coverage, that means that paid media--which never stopped--was ineffective. Overstating the electoral effect of Sandy is a way of explaining away the fact that all that paid media bought by the Republican super PACs was of limited value at the end of a presidential race.
Myth two is that the first debate was a game changer for Romney. Yes, Romney was at his best and Obama was flat--even by the standards of past incumbents, who typically are at their worst in the first debate after four years inside the presidential bubble. But the "permanent" bump in the polls was smaller than claimed by reporters craving a new story line.
At no point before or after the first debate did Romney ever lead in enough state polls to cobble together 270 electoral votes. When Karl Rove talked about national polls in his Wall Street Journal column last week, he knew full well that state polls are a more accurate prediction of election outcomes. That is why he seldom relied on national polls in the presidential campaigns he ran.
Romney definitely gained 2 to 3 points after the Denver debate, as reluctant Republicans and independents returned home. That may have prevented an Obama blowout, but it was too little too late.