The Gamble declares Mitt Romney didn’t have a chance in 2012

Anyone that watches presidential elections, as if they are a sport, with the idea that there are innumerable game changing moments in every presidential election, may be disappointed by the information contained in the book The Gamble, written by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.  Anyone that watches presidential election politics on a daily basis, and follows polls, and tracking polls, and watches with bated breath which states are in play, and how a politician’s views on particular issues may swings polls, may be disappointed by all of the facts and data put forth by this book.  The reason readers will likely be disappointed by the book, writes Daily Beast writer Stuart Stevens, has nothing to do with the quality of the book, but the thesis put forth by the book that presidential elections are a lot more inevitable than anyone would believe.

“The search for ‘game–changers’ may make for grabby headlines, but it does not really help us understand presidential elections in general and the 2012 presidential election in particular,” write Sides and Vavreck in Chapter One of The Gamble.

GambleThe Gamble almost makes all of the backroom strategists, and political consultants, appear unnecessary.  The book’s theme almost makes all of the blood, sweat, and money spent on political elections appear irrelevant.  The book’s theme—that all presidential elections, at this point in history, can almost be predetermined—even makes most of the 24-7 election coverage appear irrelevant.

We’ve all watched these 24-7 news programs, with their paid consultants, and experts, analyze the events of presidential elections.  We’ve heard them say that one momentary mistake, one slip of the tongue, can cost a candidate an election.  This type of analysis makes for provocative, edge-of-the-seat viewing, but the data mining efforts listed in The Gamble suggests that while these momentary mistakes may make for great TV, they are either easily rectified, or they don’t often move the polls as often, or as much, as people think they do.

Those of us that watch 24-7 news programs, during presidential elections, can usually produce a top ten list of the most provocative events, the game changers, in presidential election history. To read through Sides and Vavreck’s The Gamble, one is led to believe that most of those moments were overrated, and that most of those elections were determined before that game changing event occurred.  The thesis of this book suggests that most elections are less provocative, and more easily determined, on a scientific basis, than anyone would believe. They use the 2012 presidential election, between Romney and Obama, to illustrate this point.

1) The power of debates.  The Romney supporters that gained hope, after the first debate, simply didn’t know the history of presidential debates, according to the data provided in The Gamble.  The Gamble states that no sitting incumbent, or challenger for that matter, has ever won all three debates.

2) The polls.  All of the polls, and tracking polls, that came out in 2012, suggested one thing: Romney would not win. Some of the reports gave hope to Romney supporters, by showing a narrowing of the gap, and some of them caused Obama supporters angst, but in the end Romney never led.

3) The economy.  The economy, the recovery, may not have been growing at an eye-popping clip during the 2012 election, but it was never so stagnant that it would lead a serious, and objective, prognosticator to predict a Romney victory.  The Gamble surmises: “(The economy) was growing at a rate, based on the previous 60-plus years of presidential elections, that was sufficient to predict an Obama victory.”

4) The effect of ads.  If you watch 24-7 news programs, you’ll undoubtedly hear analysts and forecaster speak about the effectiveness of ads.  They’ll judge the effectiveness of the ads, and they’ll judge the timing of such ads, and how they could affect elections among a certain demographic.  You’ll hear reports of one campaign spending tons of money on ads in one state, and pulling the funding for other ads in other states.  By the end of the 2012 election, the Obama team data suggested that all of the ads run through the election didn’t matter when compared to those ads run on the day before the election.  In the end, The Gamble’s authors suggest that “the Obama team’s data mirrored our findings in saying that the ads never really moved the polls.”

5) Game Changers.  24-7 viewers are often inundated with reports of game changing statements, analysis of those statements, and poll-influenced changes that result from those game changers.  One of the biggest, in 2012, was Romney’s “47 percent” comment.  The Gamble’s findings suggest that this quote did cause some Romney voters to move away from Romney, initially, but they eventually “came back to him after the first debate.”  In essence, the media declared this the biggest flub in 2012, and they ran it as often as they could.  It was, as The Gamble illustrates, easily rectified.

6) Ideological excess.  One of the reports that came out after the 2012 election defeat was that Romney lost some independent voters by being too conservative?  The Gamble found that it was actually Obama that was “ideologically further from the most voters.” (Romney campaign data showed the same results.)

7) The likability factor. One aspect of presidential politics that talking heads focus on is the likability factor.  They cite the old “which candidate would you most like to have a beer with” to determine who is going to win this election.  Some have stated that this particular poll determined a number of the elections that preceded Barack Obama’s 2008 election.  Stuart Stevens review of The Gamble doesn’t state whether or not this poll is totally ineffective in pre-determining winners of presidential elections, but the book does say that in this particular election Romney could’ve  been “perceived as favorably as Obama, and he likely would have lost anyway.”

8) The ground game. In this particular election, a number of prognosticators immediately claimed that the community organizer experience that Obama had, helped him secure a ground game unmatched in presidential election history.  They called it “the machine” that laid the groundwork for all future candidates to copy.  The Gamble authors found that these community organizing efforts produced “an advantage that amounted to anywhere from a 0.3 to a 0.6 advantage. Not insignificant, but not determinative.”

9) The inevitability.  As Stuart Stevens writes it in his review of this book, “The outcome was likely predetermined by forces out of anyone’s control.”  He writes that there was so much “blood, sweat, and tears” put into this election that it’s almost frustrating to learn that when two professionals, like The Gamble’s John Sides and Lynn Vavreck dig through the data to “provide an overwhelmingly compelling case,” the reader realizes that there’s not much a challenger can do to overcome an incumbent’s advantage.  {1}

10) The miracle factor. One factor that the authors of The Gamble didn’t cover, and Stuart Stevens didn’t cover in his Daily Beast review, but a point that I believe fits into the overall theme of their writing, is the idea that a challenger in a presidential election, needs a miracle to unseat a sitting incumbent—especially when that incumbent’s economy is not termed an absolute disaster.  The idea states that if the challenger doesn’t have the “I need a miracle” mindset in his campaign, he has absolutely no chance of winning.  I don’t think this statement speaks to either candidate’s qualities as a politician, in this 2012 election, except to say that Obama had the sizable advantage of incumbency, and Romney didn’t have the sense of desperation, or hunger, required to overcome that sizable advantage.

The last challenger to defeat an incumbent, Bill Clinton, performed his miracle, in part, because he had that sense of desperation, and hunger, and the media fell in love with him—something he admits by the way, saying he was a “flavor of the month”.  The media also agreed with the Clinton assessment that George H.W. Bush’s (GHWB) was an absolute disaster, and they trumpeted that idea.  They also trumpeted GHWB’s relative lack of interest, and hunger for the job, when compared to Clinton’s, and they immortalized this assessment by catching GHWB glance at his watch in a town hall debate.

If Romney were going to perform the same miracle, he had to have known that he wouldn’t have the same media support as Clinton did in 1992, but that should’ve driven him to be more desperate, more hungry, and more provocative.  He should’ve gone for the political throat of Obama, on his administration’s actions in Benghazi, in the third debate.  He could’ve gone after Obama in the second debate with as much vigor as he did in the first, and supporters suggest that the election may have swayed more in Romney’s direction if he would’ve, at least, done something symbolic in New York, following Hurricane Sandy.  He should’ve played the last month, following the first debate, as if he needed a miracle every single day.  Instead, he put forth one debate, and went into a prevent defense.

None of these “should’ve, could’ve, would’ves” would have made a significant, and determinative difference, if one reads The Gamble however.  Based on their in-depth research, most presidential elections can be pre-determined before they even begin, but isn’t that the very definition of what a miracle is?  Isn’t a miracle something that exceeds beyond expectations and overwhelmingly compelling cases?  We’ll never know the answer to that question, however, and Sides and Vavreck’s data-driven approach—that led them to declare that the 2012 presidential election ended in “a fairly simple and predictable outcome”—will go down in history as the definitive narrative of what happened. This latter fact is is only made possible, in my humble opinion, because Romney didn’t perform in the 2012 election as if he needed a miracle.



One thought on “The Gamble declares Mitt Romney didn’t have a chance in 2012

  1. I’m not trying to denigrate any of your information, or the book you’ve reviewed here, but there are two other factors that correlate to victories in presidential contests. I’m not sure that either are determinative, but they are interesting statistically. Both facts support a hypothesis that political parties and stands on issues the candidates take matter less than non-verbal aspects of their presentation.

    1. From Washington on through Obama, 75% of the time, the taller candidate wins.
    2. Since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, every winning candidate is the one with the higher “TVQ” – the one that appears to be more relaxed on camera. It need not be the one that is the best speaker, or whose verbal content is more appealing. It’s typecasting, something that allows viewers to imagine a candidate as if they were a character in one of their favorite shows. In this case, the series is called “The Election”. (This is a simplified variant of McLuhan’s media theories.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s