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Shellshocked

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A connected Republican friend attended one of the final Romney events. And emailed me about it. He told the confidence in victory seemed clear in "the staff body language. If they are going to lose they don't know it. Loose. Almost giddy."

As I've told people for the last week or so, in addition to BSing and bluff, it's critical to understand the psychological dynamics that go into the final days of a campaign. These people have worked for at least 18 months, sometimes much, much longer. The result seems like one of transcendental importance. You really, really want to believe. But psychology follows need. In the final days of a campaign you're pushed almost past physical and psychological endurance. And you've got days of running on adrenaline ahead of you. Most people simply can't sustain that unless they convince themselves they at least have a solid shot at victory. And if you need it, you create it. So the cocooning dynamics are profound. And you can't rule out the possibility that people really believe what they're saying, notwithstanding lots of available evidence to the contrary.

Here's how one "senior advisor" put it to CBS. "We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory. I don't think there was one person who saw this coming."

Wow.

One key point that comes out in the piece is that the Romney team wholly bought into the Unskewed Polling movement. In fact, it seems like they were skewing their own polls. This isn't totally crazy. There were basic questions about the profile of the electorate that would vote and that speaks directly to turn out models and partisan ID.

Here, though, is the part that sort of baffles me.

Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.

In other words, they not only skewed their polls and not only thought they were in a position to win. They were so confident that they went for expanding the map, much as President Obama's campaign did in the final days of the 2008 campaign.

This claim makes me really question the whole piece, the veracity of the entire story (not in the sense that the article is dishonest but whether what the Romney team claimed here is credible). It's just a step too far. Just too ridiculous. I can maybe believe that the Romney camp thought they had a fighting chance in Ohio -- after all the final result was pretty close. I simply cannot believe that they thought they were in such a strong position that they were going to try for a decisive electoral college win.

So how'd they mess it all up? The CBS piece refers to three miscalculations -- seemingly ones the Romney folks now point to.

1. Misreading turn out and party ID. i.e. self-skewing (crazy). 2. Undecided voters and the incumbent rule. (Not totally crazy at all. Seemed no longer valid after 2004. And now seems clearly invalid.) 3. Independents.

It's independents I want to focus on. You probably heard many times over the last few months that Romney was kicking Obama's butt among independents and you just couldn't lose independent by that much (as Obama seemed to be) and win. But a very cursory look at partisan identification trends over the last few years showed a clear reason was this was not the case. As I explained in a post on October 31st, 'independents' had changed a lot over the last five years. A large number of Republican voters had ceased to identify themselves as "Republicans" and reclassified themselves as "independents" despite maintaining the same conservative ideological stance or in some cases becoming even more conservative.

This chart illustrates the trend.

This simultaneously decreased the number of Republicans (thus creating the supposed party ID 'skew' toward the Democrats) and also making "independents" as a group much more conservative. That of course made it much easier (and also less meaningful) for Romney to win conservatives. The key point is this: independents are not moderates who stand equidistant between the two parties. They're just people who don't identify with one of the two party labels. Big difference.

And yet, at least according to the CBS article, this completely eluded the folks running the Romney campaign ...

Independents. State polls showed Romney winning big among independents. Historically, any candidate polling that well among independents wins. But as it turned out, many of those independents were former Republicans who now self-identify as independents. The state polls weren't oversampling Democrats and undersampling Republicans - there just weren't as many Republicans this time because they were calling themselves independents.

I find this mystifying. You can see what's happening pretty clearly in the trend chart above. After I did the post on October 31st a few conservative commentators tried to poke holes in my reasoning with arguments that struck me as pretty tenuous. It really didn't occur to me that people running a multi-hundred million dollar national campaign wouldn't get this. I'm still not totally sure I buy that they didn't. And my skepticism is heightened by the fact that lots of Republicans outside the Romney campaign signaled (through positioning statements, excuses and so forth) that they did know what was coming.

The CBS piece is one of the first to really make me think that key people at the heart of Romney camp -- including Romney himself -- may have been wholly unprepared for the scale of their defeat. I still find that hard to believe -- both because there was so much evidence to the contrary and because of their actions which seemed to signal desperation. But I'm closer to being convinced.