Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Is Fed Up a Campaign Book?

One of the reasons I've thought Rick Perry was likely to run for president in 2012 is that he published Fed Up -- a book chock full of very conservative policy positions. Paul Campos draws the opposite conclusion:
I find it a bit hard to believe that a prospective candidate would go into print with something like this, at least if his handlers had anything to say about it. (In terms of subtle signalling to Wingnuttia, this book seems less like a dog whistle and more like a ceremonial gong)...My theory, which is mine, is that Perry did not start seriously considering the idea of a presidential run until the first batch of GOP contenders started falling on their faces, and the inevitable longing for someone “electable” began to cast about for likely lads.
I like a good Anne Elk (Miss) reference as much as anyone, but I really disagree. It's not just the old Richard Nixon slogan of going right to win the nomination and then left to win the election. It's that policy positions are just far more likely to matter at this stage than that one. Candidates, campaign, and policy positions are important during nomination battles because there's so little basis for distinguishing between candidates.

But once we get to the general election, most voters will choose on the basis of party, so it doesn't really matter what the candidates say. Even if you're a strongly pro-Social Security Republican, you're still probably going to support Perry if he's the nominee because you agree with him and disagree with Barack Obama on abortion, and guns, and foreign policy, and economic policy, and lots more. Besides, you probably will have a generally positive view of Perry as a person and a generally negative one of Obama, both because you will tend to pay attention to information that confirms those views and because you will probably watch Fox News and listen to Rush and therefore be exposed to those views. Indeed, odds are that you'll simply not believe that Perry really means what he says about Social Security. Of course, it all plays out the same way for Democrats. As for swing voters, what we know about them is that they are usually among the least attentive voters; they're the least likely to know what Rick Perry said in a book a couple of years ago. They're the ones who are pushed primarily by the economy and, perhaps, other events. Now, granted, Barack Obama will probably do what he can to make sure that they know, and the evidence is that ideological extremism is indeed a net negative...but Goldwater or McGovern range extremism only costs a few points on election day in November.

Granted, it's a lot harder to quantify how much those issue positions will help in caucuses and primaries, if at all. But I certainly think they're a clear net plus at this point. And any candidate who is offered a significantly better shot at a presidential nomination in exchange for, say, 3 points off the general election vote should in my view absolutely take that deal. If, that is, he's only interested in winning the presidency and is indifferent about policy.


  1. "but Goldwater or McGovern range extremism only costs a few points on election day in November."

    I just find this very hard to believe. Getting under 40% of the vote, for a major party candidate, is definitely not normal. There is no reason why Nixon should have won a landslide in '72, if the Democrats had picked someone more mainstream. And if Nixon or Rockefeller had run again in '64 vs. LBJ, would it really have been a total blowout? Although I suppose you could make the case that the real problem for both Goldwater and McGovern was that they were opposed by large factions of their own parties.

  2. wkdewey: There's one big reason: the economy. In 1972 and 1964 real disposable income was growing very fast, which makes the incumbent look good. Getting under 40% of the vote isn't normal, but neither is the economy being that good.

  3. " Indeed, odds are that you'll simply not believe that Perry really means what he says about Social Security. Of course, it all plays out the same way for Democrats."

    Does it? I know this isn't the main point of your post, but it really doesn't seem like recent Democratic primaries play out the same way as Republican primaries, particularly when it comes to staking out policy positions that could be (rightfully) considered extreme? What are the relevant Democratic historical examples of moving-to-the-center after the explicit staking out of extremist political policies?

  4. PF,

    Mostly there I meant from the point of view of the individual voter; partisan Dems are mostly like partisan Republicans in that regard, although I suppose one can argue that partisan Dems may be exposed to a relatively more diverse media menu.

  5. On the subject of Rick Perry: Why is he already being talked about as a top tier candidate -- for that matter, why do you, John, say he's the only contender besides Romney -- when none of the polls for the early states show it? Seriously, are there any real numbers to back this newly embraced wide assumption?

  6. I get that a majority of people are committed partisans, but among the remaining minority, doesn't a few points represent a pretty big deal? I mean if you start at 45 AND your opponent starts at 45, handing him a few free points seems like a very bad idea to me.

    I also suspect that an extreme position against Social Security and Medicare is likely to put you on the high side of whatever a "few" points means.

  7. I second what BrianTH is saying. If Obama was at something like 30% approval and the economy was already in a double dip recession, then maybe you could afford to spot the incumbent 3%. But it seems like an unnecessary risk from a tactical perspective based on the way things look right now. Of course it's entirely possible that Rick Perry just really believes that virtually every bill and Constitutional amendment passed since 1900 should be undone.

  8. 80-85% of the electorate is going to vote for their tribe, no matter if it's represented by Charles Manson as the candidate. They don't count, and if voter intensity is down, they count even less on the side that's down.

    It's the other 15-20% of persuadable voters that matter, and swing elections, especially presidential elections.

    Successful candidates pounce on the issues of the day, and despite the claims of some that those persuadable voters are dopes who don't pay attention... they do. They pay attention to what's caught their eye and is of concern to them. Most of it will be concerning the economy and their pocketbook, obviously.

    Perry is a shrewd little political animal. His statements about Bernanke are very considered, and you know this because they instantly drew blood from the White House, and return fire, which the Perrybots welcome, obviously. That was the bait. It separates Perry in the primary, and frames the general. It's a win-win for him, and Obama has played his part better than the Perrybots could have possibly dreamed. This is just brilliant politics, you gotta admit.

    This Perry guy ain't no dummy, when it comes to the political arts. He knows folks, and not just the Tea Party, are waking up to the Fed and Treasury's handiwork, as Paul has tilled that soil for some years now, which Perry will now reap from. Heck, you recently had that lefty darling, that bigmouth Florida congressman who got whacked last election, knocking heads with the Fed.

    So you pick off bits and pieces of the 15-20% persuadable. That's how you win elections.

  9. I doubt that 10% of swing voters have ever heard of the Fed or could pick Ben Bernanke out of a lineup.

    (Obviously, if the GOP nominee decides to run a general election campaign against the Fed, that will chance to some extent...but it seems to me that "blame Obama" is a much more direct attack than "blame the Fed").

    This isn't for general election consumption; it's for swing Bachmann/Perry voters.

  10. Mr. Bernstein,

    We'll put you down in the "persuadable voters are dopes" category, then. ;-)

    But even if it's just 10% of persuadables who are paying attention to the Fed, that still gives the predatory Perry an in to 10% of his 15-20% persuadable prey, in the general. That's potentially 1.5-2 points... and he's part way home.

    And yes, you're correct, the Perrybots are doing this mostly for the primary, at least right now. But Obama has just helped them in their primary battle, and framed it up for potential use in the general, if things shake out that it's useful. Now, Perry can "blame Obama" for everything, or he can "Blame the Fed, who work for Obama, see right here in my new campaign advertisement where he stood up for them on August 15, 2011". He's got options, now.

    Remember, Obama is making himself a prey animal, with this. He needs to climb back up into the presidential pulpit and use it to full advantage, and not spar with Texas predators who're just seeking an easy meal.

  11. I don't think you can assume that the hypothetical 1.5-2% of voters who both: (A) are truly willing to consider voting for a candidate of either party; and (B) actually know enough and care enough about the Fed to view a candidate's stance on the Fed as a top voting criteria--and put that way, I'm thinking 1.5-2% is a very high estimate--are all going to be favorably impressed by the rhetoric and substance of Perry's comment. In fact, I'm not sure even half those people would be favorably impressed, and even if it was a bit over half, a marginal advantage among 1.5-2% (probably much lower) adds up to very little indeed.

    Note that a lot of people may well be favorably impressed by the notion that if Bernanke does anything to help Obama get elected, he is a traitor (the actual substance of Perry's critique). But I'm going to suggest the vast majority of such people are not in the hypothetical 15-20% of people truly willing to consider either candidate in the first place, and therefore they aren't in the hypothetical 1.5-2% either.

  12. Brian,

    We'll put you down in the "persuadable voters are dopes" category too, then. ;-)

    I'd say it's fairly easy to find a subset of 1-2% of the electorate that finds this issue important and prime issue worthy. Perhaps not in and of itself, but as a part of a whole? Oh yeah.

    For sure, I can take you out into the wilds and introduce you to species called the paulbot and the naderite. Now, members of the 80-85% who will be voting for their tribe, including Charles Manson as necessary, will both seek to include those numbers in their counts as a certainty and as applicable... but you and I both know that's not true. Nader cost Gore an election, as we know. These people live and walk and breathe among us. They view Obama as a crony corporatist, despite Obama's followers railing on about corporations. The Fed thing is joined up with that sorta thinking.

    Can the Perrybots capture those few? Who knows, but one thing I'll say, you shouldn't judge their potential response using your own "actual substance" of what Perry said, as to how it'll be heard and used by those voters. Their response will be markedly different than that of any in the 80-85%. They see and hear with far different eyes and ears. They aren't dopes.

  13. If Perry gets the nomination, he'll pay a big price for treating Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme".

    And fwiw, "Ponzi scheme" pretty much describes the current Republican Party. Ordinary Americans keep giving them their votes and getting almost nothing in return, though the politicians they're supporting seem to do very well for themselves.

  14. ...sorta like the lefty voters and politicians. ;-)


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