Why did Mitt Romney think he was a winner?

We all know that Mitt Romney was stunned when he lost.  It is said that he didn’t even have a concession speech written thus accounting for the delay between everyone including Fox calling the election and his speech.  And Logan Airport in Boston was crowded with private jets belonging to donors who were there to celebrate at Mitt’s cash bar.  But the party was spoiled because his internal polls were not only wrong, they were garbage.

Last night on Hardball, John Brabender, the Republican campaign official, did not answer Chris Matthew’s direct question as to how the Romney polls could have been so wrong.  This morning, Nate Silver, the man the Republicans trashed but who turned out to be correct, explains what happened.

In this morning’s FiveThirtyEight, Silver writes

Pollsters can expect to take their share of blame when their campaigns lose, and this year has been no exception. Not long after Barack Obama and Democrats had a strong night on Nov. 6, Republicans began to complain publicly that the polls conducted by their campaigns and by affiliated groups implied considerably more optimistic outcomes for them than actually occurred.

Perhaps these Republicans shouldn’t have been so surprised. When public polls conducted by independent organizations clash with the internal polls released by campaigns, the public polls usually prove more reliable.

Take, for example, the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin earlier this year. Independent polls had the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, favored to retain his office by about six percentage points. A series of polls conducted for Democratic groups showed a roughly tied race instead.

Mr. Walker in fact won by seven points: the independent polls called the outcome almost exactly, while the internal polls were far from the mark.

Take note any Republicans reading this:  This is a Democratic error.  And, generally speaking, internal polls are not worth much as predictors of the outcome.

But when campaigns release internal polls to the public, their goal is usually not to provide the most accurate information. Instead, they are most likely trying to create a favorable news narrative – and they may fiddle with these assumptions until they get the desired result.

The Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman, who testified under oath in the federal case against John Edwards, put this bluntly, describing the release of internal polls to the news media as a form of “propaganda”:

Hickman testified that when circulating the polls, he didn’t much care if they were accurate. “I didn’t necessarily take any of these as for — as you would say, for the truth of the matter. I took them more as something that could be used as propaganda for the campaign,” the veteran pollster said.

Some reporters make the mistake of assuming that information is valuable simply because it is private or proprietary. But the information that makes it to the reporter’s ears, or into his in-box, may be something that the campaign wants him to hear or see.

During the campaign Republican polling data was released to the New Republic and subsequently to Silver.

Silver explains

In fact, Mr. Obama won all seven states, and by an average margin of 5.7 percentage points based on the ballots counted so far. (Several of the states have yet to certify their results.) Therefore, the polls were biased in Mr. Romney’s direction by nearly five percentage points, on average.

It should be mentioned that most of the independent polls this year were also slightly biased (in a statistical sense) toward Mr. Romney. In the same seven states, the final Real Clear Politics averages overrated Mr. Romney’s standing by 2.5 percentage points. The final FiveThirtyEight forecasts were less biased statistically, in part because our forecast model was designed to respond aggressively to movement in the polls in the closing days of the campaign, which favored Mr. Obama after Hurricane Sandy. Still, our forecasts in these seven states had a one-point bias toward Mr. Romney, on average, compared against the actual results.

The curious, but little known, thing about the Romney internal polls is that it appears they never projected him to win the Electoral College.

Further, the Romney campaign’s polls did not have him winning the Electoral College, as they had Mr. Romney behind in Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, according to Mr. Scheiber. Assuming that the campaign also had Mr. Romney trailing in Nevada and Michigan, but leading in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, then Mr. Romney would have been leading in states containing 261 electoral votes, but trailing Mr. Obama in states containing 271. Mr. Romney’s internal polls implied better chances for him than the public polls did – but if Mr. Scheiber’s reporting is right, they still had him as the underdog.

My husband points out that Mitt the self-described data guy seems to have only looked at his internal polling data.  Did he look at Real Clear Politics?  Or the daily reporting of poll results from the Daily Kos?  Or even FiveThirtyEight?  These were sources readily available to him.  He could just have had staff compile all the public polling these sources used each day in a special report just for him.

Internal polls are used for a lot a purposes other than showing a candidates standing in the race.  They can be used to measure effectiveness of message or standing among a specific demographic.  But they should be taken with caution by the candidate and certainly their public release can be dangerous.  In this case, the campaign also sold all the folks on Fox. Silver concludes

But most important, campaigns would be wise not to have their pollsters serve as public spokesmen or spin doctors for the campaign. Campaigns have other personnel who specialize in those tasks.

The role of the pollster should be just the opposite of this, in fact: to provide a reality check such that the campaign does not begin to believe its own spin.

Mitt didn’t write a concession speech because he believed his own spin.  And there will likely be only one picture of him in the Oval Office.

White House Photo

Photograph from the White House.

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