Alan Abramowitz: It’s ridiculous to call these scandals ‘game changers’

May 14, 2013

Will the sudden build-up of scandals overwhelm the Obama administration?

(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

It seems possible. I reported Monday on political science research suggesting this is a particularly fertile moment for scandals to take hold of the media. And now Stuart Rothenberg uses the G-word.

The current triple play of Benghazi, the IRS and now the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records has the potential to be a political game changer for 2014.  It's hard to overstate the potential significance of the past week.

Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, is skeptical. He e-mails:

No doubt Rothenberg is reflecting the new CW among the Washington punditocracy. In my opinion, this is ridiculous. Just the use of the term "game changer" should set off alarm bells. How many "game changers" did we see during the 2012 campaign, not one of which turned out to be an actual game changer? This is another example of what I like to call  "whatever just happened is the most important thing that has ever happened until the next thing that happens" journalism.

 

Here's why this is very unlikely to be a "game changer." The electorate is deeply divided along party lines. These partisan divisions are very deep because they now coincide with other divisions such as race, values and ideology. Therefore, events such as these are very unlikely to cause any large or long-term shift in evaluations of the president let alone party identification or voting intentions.

 

We're still 18 months from the 2014 midterm election. My prediction is that by the time we get to November, 2014, none of these "game changers" will be of great concern to voters any more than the numerous supposed 2012 game changers were on the minds of voters in November of 2012. The Benghazi controversy has been going on for months and as far as I can tell, hasn't moved public opinion on Obama or 2014 voting intentions one iota. The AP bugging scandal seems to involve a legitimate national security issue and, again, seems highly unlikely to undermine support for the president or influence voting intentions. And unless the president and/or some of his top aides are implicated in the IRS scandal, I seriously doubt that it will have any lasting impact either.

 

It's not even clear that any of these "game changers" is going to have a short-term impact on the president's approval rating which stands as of today at 49% in the Gallup Poll, basically unchanged from where it has been for the past 5-6 weeks. Even Rasmussen hasn't shown any change.

Tucked inside Abramowitz's take is an interesting structural prediction about American politics: As party polarization increases and the persuadable middle dwindles, scandals and gaffes will become less meaningful as they'll only be able to convince those who want to be convinced. It's not clear that the IRS mess, Benghazi, or the DoJ/AP issue will rise to the level of being a useful test of this thesis. But something will.

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Brad Plumer | May 14, 2013