The most important lesson we should all learn from the 2012 election
“You idiot! Get back in there at once and sell, sell!”
As we set about the process of compiling and canonizing the 2012 election post-mortem, one thing we keep hearing over and over is how utterly stunned the Romney camp was at their loss. Republicans across the board apparently expected victory – the conservative punditry seemed certain of it – and now we’re hearing that Romney himself was “shellshocked” by the result.
Mitt Romney went into Election Night expecting a victory and was “shellshocked” when he finally realized he had lost, CBS News reported.
Despite early signs of a stronger-than-expected turnout for President Obama, it wasn’t until the crucial state of Ohio was called for the president that Romney began to face the likelihood of defeat.
Even then, he and his team had trouble processing the news, senior advisers told CBS News.
“We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” one adviser said. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”
Well, Nate Silver saw it coming. His projections called the final outcome almost down to the precinct, and it’s not like he doesn’t have a track record.
Silver’s final 2008 presidential election forecast accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia (missing only the prediction for Indiana). As his model predicted, the races in Missouri and North Carolina were particularly close. He also correctly predicted the winners of every U.S. Senate race.
It wasn’t just Silver. Almost all the polls showed Obama with at least a slight lead in the battleground states, and if we can believe CNN’s election night insiders, Mitt’s own tracking showed him five points adrift in Ohio as late as Sunday (which explains why he set up camp there when many expected him to focus his energies elsewhere).
In other words, all the data, all the nonpartisan analysis, all the evidence, made clear that Romney’s chances were slim. It’s understandable that he and his people would be disappointed, and mightily so. But surprised? How does that happen?
In a nutshell, the GOP blindsided themselves. The reason should be obvious to anyone who has paid any attention at all to American politics in recent years: an overabundance of blind faith. I don’t mean this in a religious sense (although the political and socio-scientific manifestations of the phenomenon issue from strong religious antecedents). Instead, I’m referring to the broad, swelling inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between belief and knowledge.
As noted, nearly all the polls showed Romney in trouble. Most broke out their results in ways that clearly suggested why he was in trouble. The rational response to such information is to take it onboard, adapt and adjust. But that’s not what the GOP did. Instead, they dismissed the data that didn’t align with their beliefs. They went so far as to “unskew” the polls because they were clearly biased in favor of Mr. Obama. How do we know they were biased? Because they favored Mr. Obama. UnskewedPolls.com performed some ideological/mathematical hijinks and produced “corrected” polls that demonstrated how Mr. Romney was actually leading. By a lot.
The resulting projected electoral map was positively Reaganesque.
You might argue that the rational response isn’t to adapt and adjust if there is actually reason to believe that all the polls are, in fact, skewed. This objection is fair, so long as your reasons for doing so are driven by factual concerns instead of ideological ones. I think it’s more than clear, by now, that GOP faith in a Romney win was driven by belief instead of knowledge isn’t it?
The upshot is what we saw Tuesday night and in the days following: shock, dismay, confusion. Romney and his people (here I’ll include the GOP’s media relations arm, FOX News) didn’t see the obvious coming and some were melting down as reality began to assert its ugly presence in ways that even Megyn Kelly couldn’t ignore. Sure, Karl Rove had an excuse for going all Randolph Duke on the set. He’d just spent $600M of rich folks’ money and had a pack of nabs to show for it, an outcome with dire implications for his future career prospects. Of course he was losing it – he was seeing his political life pass before his eyes as the Ohio totals ticked in. Again, though, this was a live, nationally televised case study in self-delusion: it isn’t true because sweet Jesus it just can’t be.
I keep using these terms “knowledge” and “belief.” I suspect that many people across the country might initially grapple with the difference (in fact, I know this to be the case). So let me define these terms, at least operationally, for the benefit of those who don’t understand the distinction.
- Knowledge is a process whereby conclusions derive from information and reasoning.
- Belief is a process whereby preconceptions govern the pursuit of information.
In other words, with knowledge, you learn all you can in as rigorous and intellectually honest a fashion as possible, then you figure out what it means. With belief, the conclusions are given from the outset and data is selected and discarded according to whether or not it supports the point you’re trying to make.
Accepting facts that run counter to what we believe, and what we want to believe, and even what we desperately need to believe, can be hard. I understand the difficulty as well as anyone. I personally now believe pretty much the opposite of nearly every important thing I believed as a young man, and I have frequently noted how many times my beliefs changed because I was proven wrong by the very smart people with whom I insisted on surrounding myself. I’ve always been a fan of the famous John Maynard Keynes quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
As hard as it is to investigate contrary information and opinions, though, it’s imperative that we do so. With gusto. The Republican Party had all the evidence there before them throughout the entire campaign. There is precious little that we know now that we didn’t know a month ago. Their decision to pretend it was all skewed led to what? They lost the White House (in a race that was surely theirs for the taking). They lost ground in the Senate. Thanks to gerrymandering they still control the House, but their candidates nationwide received fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. Gay marriage initiatives passed in a couple of states. Gays and lesbians were elected to Congress.
All because the Republican Party privileged belief over knowledge.
Plenty of debate is already under way within the Republican Party as to what the results means and what might be done about it. Some conservative analysts are paying heed to the knowledge they have gained. Others, not so much.
- In the view of some, the GOP failed because – get this – they’re not being conservative enough.
- Fringe elements in 20 states have filed petitions seeking to secede from the Union.
- Todd Aiken and Paul Broun may be out the door, but a new round of anti-science candidates are jockeying for position in the race to head up the House Science Committee.
And over at UnskewedPolls, well, see for yourself:
The GOP 2012 experience holds important lessons for us all as we move forward. The world in which we live, the nation in which we live, the neighborhoods and communities and cities in which we live are what they are, not what we wish them to be. For instance:
- Some among us might wish that we lived in a uniformly white, Christian, heterosexual, nuclear family culture. We don’t. Whatever policies we seek to implement are doomed to failure unless we acknowledge our new multicultural reality.
- Some of us believe that there is no such thing as climate disruption. There are Nate Silvers and Karl Roves in the natural science world, too. Our future and the future of generations not yet born depend on whether we’re smart enough to know to which of them we need to listen.
- Many of us believe that cutting taxes on our wealthiest citizens creates opportunity and shared prosperity for everyone. All data on the subject shows this to be pure ideology – the precise opposite is true and the refusal to pay attention to the basic facts of economic history have grave implications for us all.
- Dollar for dollar, the US pays three times more for health care than any other industrialized nation and by any measure we generate significantly worse outcomes. You might believe that only those who can pay outrageous prices deserve to be healthy, but the actual number of people who agree with you is diminishing rapidly.
- The president was born in Hawai’i. If you insist that all proof is forged (it has to be, because it doesn’t conform with your beliefs), you will find that you’re damaging the credibility of other positions you hold. Also, people won’t sit next to you on the bus.
- We are not a theocracy. A growing majority of voters are rejecting candidates whose views on how America should be governed more resemble the 1st century than the 21st. The coalition includes every facet of the electorate, but is especially pronounced among segments that are increasing in numbers.
The things are not beliefs, they are facts supported by every scrap of credible evidence that we have. The existence of facts doesn’t automatically suggest what the best policies might look like, but the refusal to acknowledge them assures disaster.
All of us – Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green and none of the above – would do well to learn from the GOP’s hard 2012 lesson.