“I always tell audiences that aren’t as engaged in the day-to-day [activities of the] campaign that we’re often at the mercy of the big factors,” says Kevin Madden, an adviser to Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. “I would say that the more you work on these, the more you become aware that you can’t direct everything. You’re looking at a handful of states and a couple of hundred thousand people who can move the election one way or the other.”
For the news media, the implications of this should be sobering. News from the campaign trail is valuable and worthwhile; millions of people want and need to know how the next president is comporting himself. But as Abramowitz notes, the media err, regularly and repeatedly, by reading more into ephemeral campaign events or statements than would-be voters do. Is this or that really a game-changing moment? Or is it, at best, just another thing that happened today?
Of course, none of this is going to stop anyone from campaigning for president or raising millions of dollars to run ads that won’t change many minds. Our modern campaign industrial complex isn’t shutting down anytime soon, nor should it. Campaigns do have some role in influencing the outcome. “Minimal effects,” after all, doesn’t mean no effect whatsoever.
Even true believers in the Minimal Effects Model recognize that campaigns and candidates are important, albeit at the margins. Those margins are important, even decisive. The 1 percent or 2 percent of voters in Ohio or Florida whom the campaigns are fighting over could be the difference between victory and defeat in November. Just ask President Al Gore.
Campbell and other political scientists say one job of the campaign is to motivate partisans — rallying the base — and to mobilize them on Election Day. Candidates prime voters by framing the issues in ways that will cause people to go to the polls. They also inform the electorate about who they are, detailing their positions, experiences and background. In other words, campaigns can affect what voters know and whether they vote. Although no candidate can transcend the fundamentals, he can still make his best possible case.
As for the forecast this fall, stay tuned. Abramowitz is a few weeks away from cranking up his prediction machine, so he’s not ready to call the race. But he doesn’t need a mathematical model to tell him what even the most casual observer can already see. “It’s going to be a close election,” he says.
Paul Farhi is a Washington Post staff writer.
Read more from Outlook:
Can an honest politician become president?
Biggest whoppers in campaign history
When honesty hasn’t been a winning policy
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