For Republicans, one of the worst parts of the GOP’s 2012 trouncing was that they didn’t see it coming.
Top party strategists and officials always knew there was a chance that President Barack Obama would get reelected, or that Republicans wouldn’t gain control of the Senate. But down to the final days of the national campaign, few anticipated the severe setbacks that Republicans experienced on Nov. 6.
The reason: Across the party’s campaigns, committees and super PACs, internal polling gave an overly optimistic read on the electorate. The Romney campaign entered the last week of the election convinced that Colorado, Florida and Virginia were all but won, that the race in Ohio was neck and neck and that the Republican nominee had a legitimate shot in Pennsylvania.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee consistently had a more upbeat assessment of races in North Dakota and Montana, among others, than their Democratic counterparts. One GOP poll even showed Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock holding even with his opponent, even as public polls showed the embattled Republican hemorrhaging support. A Republican poll taken by Susquehanna Polling and Research showed Pennsylvania Senate candidate Tom Smith leading Democratic Sen. Bob Casey by 2 points a few weeks before the election; Casey won by 9 points.
In the House, where the Republicans easily held on to their majority, the GOP still lost several races they expected to win. Utah Democrat Jim Matheson, who was down 15 points in a September poll by the firm Public Opinion Strategies, won by a single point. New York Rep. Tim Bishop, who trailed by 5 in a mid-October McLaughlin & Associates poll, won by just over 4 points. Another poll showed Massachusetts Rep. John Tierney trailing his GOP challenger by 17 points less than a month before the vote; Tierney won by a point. California GOP Rep. Mary Bono Mack, who led her opponent by double digits in a mid-October survey by consultant Arthur Finkelstein, lost by nearly 3 points. In Illinois’s 12th Congressional District and New York’s 18th Congressional District, private Republican polls left the party surprised by Democratic wins.
Now that that mountain of rosy polling data has come crashing down, Republicans are beginning to comb through the wreckage to try to figure out where they went wrong.
“On the Republican side, this was the worst cycle ever for polling and there’s nothing that even comes close to it,” said GOP strategist Curt Anderson, who helms the media and polling firm OnMessage. “It was a colossal disaster and it wasn’t confined to the presidential campaign.”
Anderson said the proliferation of different groups — campaigns, outside spenders, etc. — polling the same states had made it exceptionally difficult to decode the political state of play and develop strategy accordingly.
“It seemed like you had people taking polls in different universes at the same time,” Anderson said. “Three, four points [of disagreement], that’s the margin of error, but I’m talking 10-, 15-point differences.”
It’s not as if the party is totally at a loss to explain where it went off course. Sources familiar with Romney’s polling say that it underestimated the Democrats’ 6-point voter identification edge, nationally, and put far too much stock in what one Republican operative called “false signs of Republican enthusiasm.” Multiple Republican pollsters also acknowledged that they misjudged how many young people and minorities would show up to vote.