My father was an infantry officer in Vietnam, very early in the conflict. He left the theater in 1964, before the massive American military build-up, but could already see the writing on the wall. He remarked to me that he knew we were doomed there when the entire chain-of-command became increasingly obsessed with certain “metrics” and “measurements.” It was war by statistics. One day, in the midst of a North Vietnamese offensive, a naval officer actually showed up at my father’s base to verify that they had the requisite number of typewriters. I was reminded by my dad’s story because of a ‘narrative’ I heard from Romney’s high command.
Friday afternoon, I took part in a conference call with conservative journalists and senior members of the Romney campaign. Given the epic disappointment we all felt on Tuesday night, I initially gave the staff some credit for going through with the call. It is very hard to face head-on your defeats. But, in the middle of the call I realized they were still in denial.
The call began with mature and somber reflects from Matt Rhodes, campaign manager, and Neil Newhouse, the campaign’s primary pollster. Newhouse noted what we now know; the Obama campaign was able to use very narrowly targeted messages to turn out a vote that was very similar to 2008. Young voters, Hispanics and African-Americans all made up a larger share of the electorate than they did four years ago. Obama’s ability to replicate the 2008 electorate is why I was wrong about this election. Still, Rhodes and Newhouse showed that there were adults involved in the campaign.
The disturbing pivot on the call was when it was turned over to Rick Beeson, political director, and Zach Moffatt, the campaign’s digital director. They were totally unlike the assessment given by Rhodes and Newhouse. It was at this point the call turned into a furious spin-cycle. We were assaulted with a litany of “metrics”:
- we knocked on 14 million doors
- we had over 40 million voter contacts
- we hit all our targets
- we had X amount more contacts than 2008
- we had Y amount more contacts than 2004
- Obama had 6 years to run, we only had 6 months
- we had to hire over 100 staffers in only 60 days
- the staff we had is now available to run campaign across the country
- ORCA had problems, but we now know the exact time people voted, that can be used for future campaigns
All of that is certainly interesting, but it is not necessarily meaningful when you have lost. During Vietnam, General Westmoreland liked to regularly cite the “kill ratio” the US had over the enemy. It may very well have been true, but it didn’t change the facts on the ground. I will, for the sake of argument, assume that the Romney campaign actually knocked on 14 million doors, but if you can’t translate that into votes, who cares?
There were a lot of good people on the Romney campaign. Just as there were a lot of great soldiers who served in Vietnam. But, if you are led by people who neither understand the fight they are in nor understand that you cannot fight a campaign on simple statistics, your overall effort is doomed. The Romney campaign spent 10s of million of dollars developing a GOTV program that simply failed on election day. They created a centralized, top-down system to replace proven localized tactics to get the vote out. On today’s call, Beeson wanted credit for trying something that “had never been done before,” but it doesn’t really work that way when so many people have invested so much time, energy and money into building the campaign. “A” for effort is not really applicable in a modern, professional campaign.
In the interest of kindness, I’ll leave some of Friday’s call on the cutting-room floor. Yes, there were some howlers, but the fundamental basics were actually far worse. The staff on the Romney campaign created a series of “metrics” they felt they had to meet to be successful. They met those, but they never realized that the battlefield had completely changed. The fact that they believe they should still get a pat-on-the-back for meeting those goals reveals a lot about why this campaign lost.