What do political pundits and pitching coaches have in common? They both issue so much post-hoc commentary that they can never be wrong — or, for that matter, right. In “Ball Four,” former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton recounts that whatever the result of any pitch, the coach he called Chicken Colonel Turner “always knew the cause.” If the pitcher throws a high fastball that the batter pops up, the Colonel praises the high heater. If the same pitcher later throws the same pitch to the same batter who hits it over the wall, the Colonel warns against getting the fastball up.
Like the Colonel’s pitching commentary, the punditry on the causes of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the presidential election is entirely result driven and cannot be proved either right or wrong. If Romney had won the election, the same pundits that have lambasted his campaign would be lauding the same campaign as brilliant — the high fastball that the opponent popped up rather than hit out of park.
To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, it really doesn’t matter what you put upon the list of Romney’s campaign flaws. No after-the-fact explanation is better or worse than any other. Romney lost because he was too conservative, or not conservative enough. He ran too much on his personal resume; he didn’t define himself well enough. He didn’t promise the voters enough; he promised them too much to be believed.
The truth is that Romney didn’t lose the election in the campaign. Deeper forces than campaign strategy and tactics account for his defeat. As Gazette readers know, this is the verdict of the Keys to the White House, a prediction system that I developed in 1981 with Volodia Keilis-Borok, an authority on the mathematics of prediction models.
For several years in Gazette columns I had consistently shown that the Keys clearly pointed to an Obama victory, even in the supposedly dark days of the Democratic campaign following the first presidential debate.
Prior to this year’s election, the Keys system had predicted well ahead of time the outcomes of all seven presidential elections from 1984 through 2008. This year marks eight consecutive correct predictions.
As a national system, the Keys forecast the popular vote. However, in 28 of 29 elections (97 percent) since 1900, the popular vote and the Electoral College vote have coincided. The sole exception is the disputed election of 2000.
The Keys demonstrate through this 28-year record of successful advance prediction that it is governing that counts in presidential elections, as measured by the consequential events and episodes of a term. Nothing that a candidate has said or done during a campaign, when the public discounts everything as political, has changed his prospects at the polls. Debates, advertising, television appearances, news coverage and campaign strategies — the usual grist for the punditry mills — are nearly irrelevant on Election Day.
Thus, Romney’s defeat had nothing to do with either his campaign or that of President Obama. Rather, the party holding the White House had governed sufficiently well — not perfectly —- to gain another term.
The Keys are 13 true/false questions focusing on the strength and performance of the party in power, with an answer of true favoring its re-election. Obama had 10 keys in his favor after the elimination of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, two more than the eight Keys necessary to predict his victory. (“Updated Prediction for 2012,” June 2, 2011).
The Keys favoring Obama included incumbency, the lack of a contest for his nomination, the absence of significant third-party opposition and the end of the recession before the election year. The president achieved major policy change. He avoided significant scandal, sustained social unrest like that of the 1960s or a consequential foreign policy disaster equivalent to losing a war. He achieved a major foreign policy success (Bin Laden) and did not face a charismatic challenger in Mitt Romney.
If candidates understood that effective governing, not campaigning, decides presidential elections, we could have an alternative to our sound-bite, negative and consultant-driven campaigns. Candidates could use the campaign to seek a mandate for governing by articulating clearly, boldly and in detail their vision for the next four years.
Even losing candidates might still inspire grass-roots activism, test solutions to problems and enhance our diminished confidence in American politics. The only true post-election insight on Romney’s campaign is that no one will ever be inspired by anything he said or did.
Allan J. Lichtman is a professor of history at American University and a national political analyst. His email address is email@example.com.