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Asymmetric Beliefs Can Lead to Bad Outcomes

[ 88 ] November 8, 2012 |

This may, believe it or not, be the scariest thing I’ve ever read about the modern GOP:

Romney advisers are telling CBS News that there wasn’t one person on the Romney campaign who saw the loss coming, and the GOP presidential candidate was “shellshocked” by the results. Here’s what they have to say:

  • “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.”
  • “There’s nothing worse than when you think you’re going to win, and you don’t…It was like a sucker punch.”
  • Romney “was shellshocked.”

The CBS story indicates that the Romney team even bought into the “unskewed polls” theory, believing that the polls dramatically underestimated Republican turnout and overestimated Democratic enthusiasm.

This report comes after other indications that the Romney campaign was disregarding polling data.

It’s one thing for the rubes to believe that an election is in the bag when the actual chances of victory are south of 10%; indeed, a good campaign requires creating the conditions for suspension of disbelief. It’s entirely another when the braintrust of the campaign has determined to smoke its own product. When I wrote this post, I didn’t really think that the core strategists in the campaign had abandoned connection with reality; rather, I figured it was mostly #2 and #3. Asymmetric beliefs about the probabilities of success in conflict can produce bad outcomes. Another way of phrasing is that it would be remarkably more reassuring to learn that the campaign was simply lying about its chances (and, of course, they may still be); lying, at least, can be entirely rational. See also Ari Kohen on the difference between hope and delusion.

As it happens, Dan Nexon and I chatted about this just today:


Comments (88)

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  1. Reasonable 4ce says:

    This is even more evidence the country dodged a bullet on Election Night.

  2. Corey says:

    I don’t know, this sounds like the definition of cheap talk to me. Seems like campaign insiders have every incentive to look like true believers after the fact.

    • Corey says:

      In today’s psycho GOP, that is.

    • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

      Emperor: What is that you wanted to tell me about my clothes?

      Servant: Um…nevermind.

    • STH says:

      It’s hard for me to see the advantage in claiming they didn’t know. Considering what the polls were saying, it kind of makes them look like idiots. If you wanted to produce some sort of positive spin, wouldn’t you say something like, “we saw from the polls that the odds were against us, but we believed so very much in our candidate that we gave it our all, anyway . . . .”

      I suspect some of them did know what was coming, but it wouldn’t have paid (literally or otherwise) to say anything, so they kept their mouths shut.

      • Warren Terra says:

        Yup. As we saw in 2008, the incentives after your campaign is crushed are to tell everyone who will listen that you were the smart, aware one in the room. Yes, this does mean telling reporters your earlier burbles of optimism were dishonest spin, but those reporters don’t take that seriously.

        On the other hand, the incentives I referred to above apply only within the wider world. Within the wingosphere, where these people hope to find sinecures, any admission that they ever lacked faith would have a disturbing effect on their prospects. Conservatism cannot be failed, center-right nation, etcetera, etcetera.

  3. Another way of phrasing is that it would be remarkably more reassuring to learn that the campaign was simply lying about its chances (and, of course, they may still be)

    Thus proving why they deserve more of those free-flowing campaign dollars?

    • Craigo says:

      I’m rather happy about this, actually. Another cycle or two of the GOP’s Greatest Campaign Hits: Self-deportation, 47%, legitimate rape…

      • LeeEsq says:

        I’m an immigration lawyer and the Romney’s self-deportation remark really annoyed because its evidence that he does not know anything about immigration law. We already have self-deportation under the INA, its called voluntary departure, where an alien in removal proceedings agrees to leave the United States on her own accord in exchange for not receiving a formal removal order against them, which would create a ten year bar against her re-entry.

        • NorthLeft12 says:

          I am no expert, but I thought that “self deportation” referred to the strategy of making everyday life so difficult for non-citizens that they would return to their country of origin because life would be easier.
          I believe they were going to put in requirements to show proof of citizenship before receiving any government benefits, registering for schools, any licenses, or receiving health care. Is that correct?

          And besides, the Romney/Ryan economic plan would likely result in an American economy that would no doubt provide even more incentive to leave. It may also have lead to more emigration too. Unintended consequence?

          • Lee says:

            That sounds like something that the GOP would do, I couldn’t really stomach the debates. The problem is that most of this stuff is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held that children here illegally and citizen children of illegal aliens have the right to go to public school in the 1980s. Most of the rest of what they wanted violates some law or another.

            Plus there are several aliens in the United States legally and for long periods who are neither permanent residents or citizens. Are they to be denied services?

            • NorthLeft12 says:

              Like I said above, I thought that was the gist of their plan.

              Whether it was strictly constitutional or not was not a big concern of the GOP/Tea Party.

  4. Step 1: The Republicans make something up, because it’s useful for an argument they’re having at that particular moment.

    Step 2: They all say exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, and link to each other.

    Step 3: The Republicans then turn around and believe the thing they just made up, because now they’ve seen it confirmed by three or four sources they really trust.

    Step 4: They then base their political strategy on that thing they just made up.

    This is not going to work out well for them in the long term.

    • vogon pundit says:

      I have to agree– and it’s bad for everyone else too. I keep thinking of a life raft with a significant fraction of the passengers hallucinating.

    • catclub says:

      Although it worked to get the Iraq invasion going.
      Lie to Judith Miller on Saturday, note that the NYT is reporting that there are Aluminum tubes in Iraq on Sunday gasbags.

    • IM says:

      Karl Kraus said: Diplomats tell lies to journalists, journalists print the lies, diplomats read the papers and believe the lies.

    • Cheap Wino says:

      This is a remarkable concise and accurate description. Kudos.

      They used to be more pragmatic about this — think David Frum. At least they weren’t just making shit up, it was all about the framing. Now it’s morphed into the cycle you’ve described which, while useful in the short run — the aughts — it’s, as you said, not going to work out very well for them (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

  5. wengler says:

    You remember the Iraq War, right?

    • rea says:

      I definitely remember how shocking it was that things that were apparent to me–just some guy with a computer–were not at all apparent to people with the entire national security apparatus at their beck and call.

    • Great minds.

      It’s like they watched what the Bush administration did with the Iraq WMD/bin Laden intelligence, and used it to model their approach to political science. Wicked smaht.

    • parrot says:

      i like my cake yellow … george tenat, et al we will never forget you … iraq agitprop was clearly a monumental clusterfuck … though it should be pointed out, group think/bubble think, can infect any organization, especially one where the stakes are high and the outcomes are winner-take-all … i’ve worked at so many, many companies where i’ve been in meetings and thought: “train wreck, doesn’t anyone else see the train wreck … we’re on this train … okay either nobody sees it or the anxiety of facing it and speaking up is too overwhelming … don’t be the last to turn the lights out” … the size of the organization tends to make little difference in my experience … cultures become very insular and myopic coupled with ruthless and brutal infighting and careerism … even among natural skeptics, bubble think can take over … nasa, and i would hope the military and law enforcement orgs, continually have to audit themselves for quality standards and make adjustments … which can become extremely difficult because of the power centers in a culture … that said, what’s very obvious about our current right-wing is that they have a very low, or non-existent threshold for self-doubt, self-introspection, etc … the right-wing airwaves are full of victimization fantasies … they look like clowns … mean spirited, angry clowns …clown posse clowns …

  6. rea says:

    Nexon makes the point, and I’m incliend to agree–didn’t the late decision to go back into Pennsylvania (and, also, Michigan) after those states had previously been written off, suggest that they knew they were in trouble in Ohio?

    • Craigo says:

      There were heavily GOP-leaning polls showing a near tie race (Susquehanna, Wenzel, McLaughlin). They really thought they could win it.

    • djw says:

      Perhaps. I was inclined to interpret that as a “we have more money than we know what to do with, so why the fuck not?” scenario in real time.

      • rea says:

        admittedly, the decision to run ads in oregon seems that way (to the extent it was not just obvious grift by consultants raking off their prcetages)

        • Craigo says:

          An underrated explanation, I think. The campaign that wouldn’t pay post-concession cab fare routinely overspent on ads.

          As it turns our, Anerica’s superrich are terribly easy marks.

        • Warren Terra says:

          Traditionally (as in, i don’t know about this year) the in the Presidential contests Republican media consultants were paid flat fees, and (until Obama ended this practice) the Democratic media consultants pocketed a percentage on all buys of airtime.

          Besides, money not spent on ads in Oregon would probably have been spent on ads someplace.

          Basically, I don’t think that theory holds.

        • Warren Terra says:

          Rather than focusing on the ad buys in OR and PA (when ad buys in the battleground states would surely have been gilding the gilding on the gilding on the lily) it may be better to ask about Mitt’s decision to coast for the final two weeks: no interviews, no appearances at events other than campaign rallies, basically no attempt to make news, except for a truckload of canned goods. And Ryan just hid, almost completely. Sure, he was unpopular, but maybe they could have worked on that rather than simply hiding him.

          That defensive strategy in the closing weeks suggest to me that Romney’s people really were telling him they had it in the bag.

      • Hogan says:

        A little from Column A, and a little from Column B.

    • rea says:

      This account by a rightwingnut from inside the Romney gotv oepration is . . . interesting.

      • John says:

        I think this kind of shit can happen in any campaign. I had similar experiences on my failed attempt to poll watch for the Obama campaign here in Philly (no credentials, stuff sent out at the last minute, etc.)

  7. rea says:

    What it is vital not to forget is that it was a very near-run thing, which our side won primarily due to its superior technical competence. And we ought not to count on winning that way next time.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Complacency is never advised.

      Still, we had a number of structural problems this race: a weak economy, scaremongering about the ACA that had gone seemingly unanswered for almost two solid years, an Atheist Muslim Communist born in Kenya as our candidate, etcetera. There is reason to hope we’ll do better next time.

      • GFW says:

        Big agreement. The next Dem nominee will likely be campaigning on four years of solid economic growth and decreasing unemployment. The ACA will probably be a cherished portion of the safety net by then. And the two most popular living presidents will be stumping for him/her.

        Any ideas who that nominee will be?

        • DocAmazing says:

          The next Dem nominee will likely be white, and that alone will take some of the skreee out of the Repubs.

          • John Costello says:

            But she also might very well be a woman, and that will put it right back in.

            • Warren Terra says:

              If she isn’t a woman, she’ll be grammatically problematic.

              Obviously, it is conceivable that the next Dem candidate may be as easy to paint as The Threatening Other, to stir up the neanderthals, as Obama has been – but the odds are against it (mostly because we’ve never had anything as atypical as a Black guy raised partly by his Atheist White single mother and partly in Indonesia even seeking the Dem nomination before), and the people most often named (Clinton, Biden, Spitzer, etcetera) are of a more conventional (read White, Old, and/or Male) stripe.

            • Doug says:


              (Not to be confused with Warren Terra, obvsly.)

    • catclub says:

      This. A moderately competent GOP campaign might edge up just a few percent.

      Bad candidate, incompetent GOTV, bad coordination of spending, … still missed by only a few percent.

      • RhZ says:

        Can we please agitate for secure computer terminals and paper confirmation records now?

        Or does that make me an unhinged crank?

        I am from Ohio, I have seen all the games. And this issue scares the heck out of me, especially because the Dems aren’t the least bit interested.

        At least we have 50 separate systems. That’s a good firewall. But that also means federal law can only do so much. I don’t want a federalized system, but I also don’t want a situation where a GOP state legislature could require voters to use Amiga computers from the 90s as the sole systems used to record their votes.

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:

          Could be worse. Could be TRS-80’s.

          Besides, it’s more than “50 systems”, since (at least in some states) the decisions are made at the county level, perhaps lower.

      • still missed by only a few percent.

        A few percent is worth more than it used to be. A two-point lead is what a four or five point lead was 20 years ago.

        Because of increasing polarization, the size of the in-play voters has decreased. This means smaller leads, but it also means that it takes a much larger swing among in-play voters to gain each point in the overall race, so that smaller lead is more solid than the same-sized lead in past races.

        • Marc says:

          It’s also that the battleground has narrowed so much. If it mattered the Democrats and Republicans could drive up their margins in New York, Texas, etc. Instead they carpet-bomb a small number of states with closely divided electorates.

  8. RhZ says:

    Krugman made the same point when the 47% tape came out iirc. He said something along the lines of, my god they believe the prole-feed.

    The 47% meme was invented by some knucklehead (Erick the Red?) and never had any basis in reality. And there was Romney, talking to pretty high level supporters, and adopting this flawed idea wholeheartedly.

    Or hook, line and sinker as they say.

    • Hogan says:

      Sinker, for sure.

    • CD says:

      Another part of the prole-feed has been that Obama has been a bumbling disaster as President. The party line in places like The Corner was that voters who had been suckered by Hope and Change in 2008 would surely recognize by now that he was a moron.

      I think I’ve heard pretty much the full range of Obama-regret and shared parts of it myself, but I’ve run into nobody who supported BHO in 2008 who now doubts his intellectual capacity.

      You have to think this is an area where Obama’s detractors were deluded by their own racism.

      • John says:

        The teleprompter business was part of this. I mean, sure, Obama tends to be more eloquent when he’s delivering a prepared speech than when making off the cuff remarks (although not always). But I don’t understand how anybody could see Obama making off the cuff remarks and think he was stupid.

        Even taking Obama at his worst, in the first debate this year, he was obviously intelligent.

        • spencer says:

          What always got me about their focus on the goddamn teleprompter is that it’s pretty common knowledge that a lot of Ronald Reagan’s allegedly unscripted, improvisational speechifying moments were actually planned out and right there on the teleprompter for him to read off.

    • FMguru says:

      The #slatepitch part of my brain is almost inclined to give Romney a break on the 47% comments. A bunch of millionaires have just given you a pile of money in exchange for the pleasure of your company, so you go out there and schmooze and flatter them and toss them some talk radio red meat – you people are the real foundations of American prosperity, it’s a shame there are so many moochers and looters in our society, yes yes I totally agree that what the poor need is a good dose of self-discipline, and so on. The rubes go home smiling and primed to contribute more money and hit their rich friends up for donations, saying “this Romney guy – I was there, he really GETS it”.

      The couple of times we’ve had leaks of comments from Obama fundraisers, he’s sounding a good deal leftier and more combative than he usually does. Same reason – the people who contribute at that level want some red meat and some ego-stroking and some inisder “proof” that their interests are what’s really driving the candidate. It’s retail politics 101.

      He may or may not believe that 47% comment. Given his demonstrated mendacity when it comes to saying whatever he needs to say to whatever audience he’s in front of, there’s no way to know. It sure did sound like something he believed in with all of his heart, though.

      • Fighting Words says:

        I don’t think I am going too far out on a limb to say that I am pretty sure that Mitt Romney sincerely believes the 47% nonsense. I know more than a few Republicans, and the belief that Democratic voters are “takers,” “dependant,” “lazy,” etc. is widespread among them.

  9. DrDick says:

    It is also important to remember that they really do think that this is a conservative country and that they represent the majority of Americans.
    This despite decades of polling data that consistently show that, whatever they call themselves, Americans overwhelmingly support very liberal policies, as long as you just present the policies and do not label them.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      Oddly, the Dems believe this as well, and it’s constantly trotted out as the reason we can’t have nice things.

    • spencer says:

      They really do believe this. I got a text from a conservative friend of mine on Monday predicting a 300+ EV win for Romney, along with a little rant about how voters don’t care about the “so called war on women” and that we are a center-right nation and that was all that really mattered – as if, once Americans realized they were supposed to be center-right, they’d understand that their voting for Romney was just unavoidable.

      I asked him which states was Romney going to win to get to 300. Haven’t heard back from him since.

  10. CaptBackslap says:

    Another example is this magnificent sentence by Jennifer Rubin: “The didn’t-ran’s of 2012 may be compelling choices in 2016. Other stars in the party (Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Gov. Scott Walker, etc.) will also have time to mature.”

    Scott Walker. Scott Walker. For President.

  11. DocAmazing says:

    The whole process by which the Republicans had been forecasting the size of their victory reminded me a lot of Amway pitches.

  12. NorthLeft12 says:

    My wife and I were just blown away when we heard that Mitt did not prepare a concession speech.
    This single fact should clearly show to anyone with the least bit of intelligence how unfit he is to be President.
    The total lack of awareness, the overwhelming sense of entitlement and over confidence, the laziness, and finally the contempt and lack of respect for his opponent and the voting public. How was this guy successful at anything?


  13. NorthLeft12 says:

    By the way, does the above incident mean that Newt Gingrich is the most intelligent and/or most reality based Republican left?

  14. jadegold says:

    I’m not buying it.

    Willard had to know he was losing–polling just isn’t alchemy.

    It’s like golf–you can foot-wedge, mulligan, and gimme putt your way into thinking you’re ready for the PGA Tour but reality will bite hard. And all pollsters understand that cheating or massaging the results only serves to make you look like a fool at the end of the day.

    I firmly believe Willard’s internal polling told him he was toast all along.

    • Derelict says:

      I’d be inclined to agree with you, but the evidence before our eyes sez otherwise.

      Mitt, his campaign, and the entire conservative movement inflated their own fact-proof bubble and eagerly climbed inside. I listened to the things Mitt said during the debates–nearly all of which came directly from talk-radio–and it was clear to me that he was listening to the Limbaughs and Hannitys of the world. I listened to Ryan spewing complete nonsense–and it was nonsense that is taken as bedrock facts by every conservative I know.

      So the idea that Mitt had no clue that defeat was imminent makes perfect sense. In his world, people like Nate Silver are like mosquitoes bouncing off the window pane.

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