coverage of the general election began for the 2012 presidential race, Elephant Watcher conducted an initial assessment of the race and calculated Mitt Romney and Barack Obama's odds of victory. Romney currently has a 65% chance of winning, while Obama has a 35% chance. Most political observers view the race as dead even. Or, like Intrade, they have Obama with a slight edge. The conventional wisdom is that the race will be very close; Democrats are no longer nearly as confident of victory as they were before. What accounts for these perceptions, and why does Elephant Watcher view Romney as more likely to win at this point?
First, let us consider how perceptions of the race have developed over time. In particular, we should consider why many political observers tended to overestimate Obama's chances in the early days of the campaign, and why they see a closer race now. When it comes to politics, the conventional wisdom is developed by political commentators who usually have some connection to Washington, D.C., the center of American government--and the center of American political journalism. (New York City is the center of American journalism in general, and plays a similar, but lesser, role here.) Politically, the population of D.C. happens to lean far to the left of the rest of America. Therefore, it's easy for political commentators in the D.C. environment to have a mistaken impression of voters' attitudes. This is frequently called the "inside the Beltway bubble" or "echo chamber." The effect is amplified by D.C.'s political journalism, which is disseminated across the country (and indeed, the rest of the world).
Generally speaking, Democrats have a tendency to err on the side of optimism when it comes to their candidates' chances of winning. In presidential elections, Democrats historically have been confident of victory in advance of the elections in which their candidates ultimately prevailed. But they also tended to be quite surprised when their candidates lost, even when polls strongly suggested that the Republican would win. On the whole, Democrats were at least somewhat surprised by every recent Republican presidential victory with the exception of 1984, when Ronald Reagan was the overwhelming favorite.
Democrats' optimism can also be seen in other prominent elections. For a recent stark example of this, consider the recall election in Wisconsin, which took place on June 5th of this year. For three solid months leading to the election, every single poll on the race showed the Republican in the lead. The RealClearPolitics average of the Wisconsin polling had the Republican winning by 6.7 points. On election day, he won by 6.8 points. Clearly, this was a case where the outcome should have been no surprise to anyone. Yet Democrats across the country were shocked and appalled by the result, and some Democratic commentators on TV broadcasts covering the election found themselves in utter disbelief that the Democrat could lose.
Republican perceptions tend to vary. One might suppose that in a vacuum (or echo chamber), Republicans would exhibit a similar optimistic bias toward their own candidates' chances. However, Republican political commentators in D.C., always the minority, are influenced by the conventional wisdom. Since the conventional wisdom is driven primarily by Democrats, Republicans can find themselves actually underestimating their own candidates. In 2004, for example, many Republicans were quite pessimistic about George W. Bush's reelection chances, even though the 2004 presidential election polls strongly suggested a narrow Bush victory. Again, Democrats were heartbroken by Democrat John Kerry's loss, and VP nominee John Edwards appeared ready to contest the result.
But early perceptions of the 2012 race were not formed merely by Democrats' perennial overconfidence. Other factors made Romney appear weaker than he actually is. During the Republican primary, the conventional wisdom held that the Republican field was unusually weak. In this case, the conventional wisdom was correct. The Republican field included a number of candidates who had very low chances of winning a general election (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Ron Paul) or had serious flaws (Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum). And the Republicans did not run even a single candidate who was capable of both uniting and exciting the Party.
However, the weakness of the Republican field as a whole did not mean the eventual Republican nominee would be weak. The "average" of the candidates in a primary does not matter; only the actual nominee matters. Once the Republican Party nominated Romney, the weakness of candidates like Bachmann and Cain became completely irrelevant. But the general impression political commentators had about the field stuck around for awhile--weakness by association.
This even applied to some specific policy areas. In the late stage of the primary, the three top contenders were Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum. Both Gingrich and Santorum had trouble winning over women voters: Gingrich had cheated on two wives, and Santorum spoke openly against all forms of birth control. Romney, on the other hand, had no such difficulty among women voters; in fact, women voters carried him to victory. But even as Romney was wrapping up the nomination, Democratic commentators continued to discuss a Republican "war on women" or disadvantage among women voters. They failed to realize that since Romney was the nominee, the problems other candidates had with women were irrelevant.
Finally, the conventional wisdom on the race changed due to polling. As May turned to June, the polling showed a tight race between Obama and Romney. Obama retains an edge in the polling, due to the fact that most pollsters are still using registered voters rather than likely voters. (When corrected for this issue, polls show Romney with a very slight lead. For an in-depth discussion on this subject, see our post on the difference between registered voter and likely voter polls.)
One shouldn't base one's view of the race entirely on polling, particularly at this early stage. In Part II, we will examine how Elephant Watcher has analyzed the current state of the race, and why Romney holds the advantage--for now.