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What matters for the election, cont’d

On Monday, I asked what matters for the election between now and November. And on Tuesday and Wednesday, I got some answers. Here are the best.

Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, makes the (entirely correct) point that everything is mattering, even as we speak. It's just not changing because everyone involved is basically good at their job:

It may not be as easy to see right now because general elections are contemporaneous, competitive, and cumulative — which means everything sort of exists in equilibrium if both campaigns are good at strategy; but I promise you, if you stopped covering Mitt Romney (entirely) his poll numbers would drop.  Things is, no one is going to run *that* randomized experiment, so we'll never know for sure, but your constant, steady level of coverage *is* affecting people's attitudes by underlying the exact stability you think is evidence that what you are doing *doesn't* matter!  Remember what Ed Tufte said, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  Your coverage is keeping things in equilibrium because you are covering two very good campaigns.  

Furthermore, the economy is driving the equilibrium even though changes in jobs and payroll numbers and the like are not yielding swings right now.  You said it yourself, incumbents in growing economies rarely lose.  That is the economy mattering at a fundamental, foundational level.  If there is a massive drop in growth in Q2, I guarantee you poll results will shift.  

Finally, what the campaigns are doing also matters — but again, since they are both pretty good at messaging and strategy, things hold in equilibrium and it looks as if nothing is mattering.  Absence of movement in public opinion does not mean no effects.  

The media, messaging, the economy, and candidate effort is affecting public opinion in 2012 — it's just that we mistake stability for the absence of campaign dynamics.  Plus, it's so early — most people have not yet focused on the 2012 election!  Really!  When they do, things might shift around a bit, but the bottom line is this one is going to be close and anything can happen.  

I want to return to this question of whether people are focusing on the 2012 election later. But moving on, a longtime campaign consultant e-mailed four things to watch:

— Will the tidal wave of money unleashed by Citizens United swamp those (mostly down ticket) races that can't keep up, or will candidates be able to jujitsu that money and make it a problem from those who spend it? Down ticket strength will have an influence in the top of the ticket for truly undecided voters.  In other words, reverse coattails.


— Will Romney or Obama run the better microstrategy campaign?  Rove saved Bush with this in 2004.  Well below the radar, campaigns are being run among affinity groups based on professions, trades, local churches, licensing, soccer league affiliations — even what magazines people read.  A swing of fewer than 40,00 Ohio votes would have made Kerry president in 2004. That's maybe 25,000 households.  Want a fresh look at what's influencing 2012? Dig deep into the microstrategy world.


— We don't talk about religion because it's not nice.  Just as we don't talk about race.  But can you doubt that tens of thousands of voters who believe Mormonism is a dangerous cult, and that this belief trumps politics, will do something other than vote for Romney?  Or that at least that many or more will do something other than vote for Obama because he's black?  Back in the 70s I managed a campaign for Congress in Alaska for an Athabaskan Indian, Emil Notti.  We were 10 points ahead in the polls until election day when we lost to Don Young.  I never forgot that lesson and encountered it often when race, gender or religion was a consideration.  I pounded that home during the Doug Wilder gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.  Wilder had a good lead in the polls — until he won by a recount.  Look it up.  The Romney-Obama race may well be decided by the level of bigotry in swing states.  It will never show up on a poll.


— Finally, there's this:  A campaign can win, or it can lose.  The Romney campaign is very disciplined.  I've been involved with Stuart Stevens in past campaigns and greatly respect him.  But Romney personally is yet to go toe-to-toe with Obama in debates or feel the full brunt of the September-October media circus.  As his trees-are-the-right-size gaff in Michigan showed, Romney, off script, has it in him to be jarring.  Much more likely that Romney will undo his campaign's good works than Obama will undermine his.

Commenter Dean of Progress tells me to look at my colleagues:

The media is what will matter. The media as a group decide the narrative that is likely to sway swing voters. Political ads matter too, but media coverage of political ads matters even more.


Most people do not take the time to do extensive political research to decide which candidate's policies will work the best or which candidate is being more genuine, so they rely on a media narrative. If they see something repeated in news coverage enough, that will start to affect their opinion.

If the media narrative focuses on positive economic news, swing voters will be more likely to vote for Obama. If the media narrative focuses on negative news, they will be more likely to vote for Romney. In such a close election, the media will be the difference in this election.


I am not suggesting the media has a partisan agenda, their agenda is to sell ads and subscriptions. They are going to cover the election the way they think does that best. What they decide matters for the election.

Over at the Monkey Cage, John Sides writes:

Campaign advertising.  As I’ve noted before, campaign ads can have an effect, even in presidential races.  However, three caveats are important here, which speak to how one should follow the ads.  First, the effect of ads seems to emerge when one side is outspending the other by a significant margin.  How much of a margin is hard to say; let’s take 2-1 as a rough estimate, which corresponds to the apparently consequential imbalance in Bush and Gore ads in battleground states right before the 2000 election.  I’m not sure either Romney or Obama will muster that kind of advantage, even with the independent spending taken into account.  TBD.


Second, the effect of ads seems to dissipate quickly, even within a week (see point #3).  So you may not need to think about the effects of ads for another 3+ months.   In fact, let’s shout that: FOR ANOTHER 3+ MONTHS.  This notion that you have to advertise early to “define” the candidate or the opposition is folklore.  Maybe there is some truth to that, but the truly rigorous studies have not identified such an effect, but have identified rapid decay.


Third, whether any effect of ads actually affects the outcome is a real question.  It may be that the net effect of ads only slightly widens the winner’s margin of victory, without actually making the difference between winning and losing.


The ground game.  To paraphrase a comment I heard from Sasha Issenberg, the problem with horse-race journalism is that it’s watching the wrong part of the horse.  It spends too much time pondering the (poorly understood) effects of messaging and not enough on the nitty-gritty activities of the campaigns on the ground.  Most importantly, we know from social science that get-out-the-vote drives can really work.  So if the election comes down to mobilizing supporters, the comments of Cory Booker on the Sunday morning shows will be far less important than whether Obama and Romney can use the accumulated data they have about voters to identify promising targets and then contact them in the most effective way.

Jonathan Bernstein chimes in:

Potentially major effects: those would be things that would change the fundamentals of the race. Most likely that would mean either a major surge or a major disaster in the economy. It's also possible, however, that a national security event or even some wildcard event could change things.

Potentially minor but real effects: see, this is where it gets tricky, because there are lots of them. John mentioned ad campaigns and organized mobilization. I'd add that a good VP pick could help Romney a point or two in his or her home state; a disastrous pick could cost a couple of points nationwide. Aggressive voter purges, voter ID laws, and other such measures may or may not be enforced harshly (and some of these are still in the courts or otherwise still contested), and that could mean a chunk of voters, which might be significant in very close states. If the election winds up very close, it's possible that one of the parties will open up an electoral college advantage, although I wouldn't even think about that until the last few weeks — Nate Silver is great at tracking that sort of thing. Late-breaking campaign events might make a small difference, just the way that TV ads might make a difference; a good example was the late-breaking campaign finance scandal in 1996, which may have cost Bill Clinton a couple of percentage points.

Commenter Lawrence Holliday writes that it's all about turnout:

Maybe it's the one thing that each party has absolutely no control over — demographics. If the electorate's demographics was the same in 1984 as in 2012, and if Mondale and Reagan each got the same share of each demographic as they got in 1984, Reagan would've won by only 52-48. Think about it — 1984 goes down in Republican lore as a landslide election and triumphant moment that confirmed the conservative revolution, but it would've been only a 52-48 victory with today's demographics, hardly such a landslide and attendant confirmation. Then think about 2008 — the worse year for an incumbent party one could possibly imagine (except that the actual incumbent was not on the ticket), and McCain still gets 47% of the vote.

So if you assume static demographics going from 2012 backwards, then this country has always been roughly a 48/48 nation. It seems to me that if that's the case, then there are only two factors that will determine the election — winning over the 4% that are undecided and turnout. If you assume that neither candidate would get more than 75% of the undecideds, and hence the election is 51-49 at best, then turnout of the remaining 96% of the electorate likely is even more important than persuading the undecideds. And the closer the winner of the undecideds gets to only 50% of that vote rather than 75%, the more turnout becomes important.

Andrew Sullivan adds:

I wonder if and how the Mormon question could arise — the only thing, barring a euro collapse or a terror attack or a disaster of some sort — that could radically alter the trajectory, in my view.

Paul Begala, who is working for the pro-Obama superPAC Priorities USA, e-mails:

POTUS' approval rating is a lot better than Carter or GHW Bush, so you can't say the country is itchin' to fire him.  But it's a lot worse than Reagan or Carter, so you can't say he will win in a landslide.  His numbers are closest to Truman and GW Bush — who won by discrediting the party opposite.  Romney can attack the President all he wants; he's just throwing more paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas.  Meanwhile he is letting us paint on the comparatively blank canvas of Romney's record.  His inability to either defend his record or define his forward-looking vision has stalled his candidacy.  Sure, he has consolidated the Obama-haters.  But Newt Gingrich could have done that.  Romney is the nominee because (in addition to swamping his opponents in money) he argued that he could win on the economy.  Now that his business record is a negative and he has no positive agenda, all he's left with is his charm.  A modest asset at best.

Bernstein made one other point worth thinking about, too. There's a lot of focus on what matters for the election. We should also be aware of what matters for after the election:

About the presidential campaign, the first point I'd make is that things will happen that have nothing to do with electoral outcomes but are still important, especially for whichever side wins. Both candidates have already made a number of policy commitments. They'll make more. They'll also make choices about which ones to emphasize, and the more visible a commitment is, the more it tends to constrain the winner after the election. Think Barack Obama's threshold for tax increases — or his choice to push for health care. Politicians can break those types of promises, but there are costs, and so what happens in the campaign tends to set up what they actually do in office.

That's not all. Representation also includes non-policy promises: politicians promise how they'll behave, and even in a way who they will be. Those promises, too, constrain candidates once they get elected. For example, Bill Clinton promised a style very different from what he claimed was an out-of-touch George H.W. Bush, and he spend a fair amount of time and energy after the election attempting to keep that promise. A lot of those sorts of promises have already been made, but again the more visible during the fall campaign, the more it will be remembered afterwards.



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Brad Plumer · July 12, 2012

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