Thursday, March 22, 2012

Campaigns Matter More in Primaries

I've been mostly quiet about the big Etch-a-Sketch thing -- which is just as well, because all you want to know about it can be found in a great Brendan Nyhan piece over at CJR.

I do have one comment, however, on an Ezra Klein post on the subject that I mostly agree with. Klein says, sensibly:
My hunch is that these moments only become “campaign defining” if the campaign was already defined that way in the first place, and in that case, they don’t have much of an impact. If that’s right, the election won’t be any different at all because of the Etch a Sketch comment. Which isn’t to say that it won’t be defined by it.
I think that gets it exactly right...for the general election. But Klein also discusses Rick Perry's "oops" moment in the same terms, and I'm not convinced we want to think about it the same way.

Remember, for the November election we have lots of very strong influences on our vote: party, of course, is the strongest, but there's also our view of the economy, and of the president in general. The candidates will have very different positions on matters of public policy. And we have several years, lots of events, and tons and tons of information to use to make those decisions. The chance that a gaffe or a debate moment or an ad will change anything is vanishingly small in that context.

But in primary elections, every voter is up for grabs, and most voters have very little information to use to differentiate the candidates. They do it; we know, because for example the exit polls tell us that (most) social conservatives figure out that they're supposed to vote for Rick Santorum. But especially early in the process, it's a pretty difficult task. Why Santorum and not Bachmann? Why Romney and not Pawlenty?

Because voters have little to go on, high-visibility and trusted party actors become important. So do ads (which of course are funded or not funded by party actors). And so too is information in the mass media. When something such as "oops" blows up, there's very little to prevent it from damaging a candidate.

Now, Klein is probably correct that this particular campaign gaffe mattered more to Rick Perry than it would have to Romney because Perry had already acquired a terrible reputation from previous debates. So, yes, the single moment has to be seen in the context of other moments. Remember too that this all happens (or doesn't happen) at the elite level, too. Party actors who had a lot at stake were paying close attention to the debates and other campaign events, and may well have made their choices in part based on candidate performance there. But in the general election, all those party actors are not only committed to their candidate, but for the most part committed to at least pretending in public that their candidate is totally dominating everything.

In other words: yes, it makes lots of sense that there can be "game change" moments in primary elections, but that they'll be few and far between in the general election.


  1. I'd compare it more to John Edwards' $400 haircut. It draws together every lingering doubt people already have about the candidate and crystallizes it into one memorable symbol.

    My rule of thumb for candidates would be: "Never synecdochize your opponent's narrative about you"

    1. Synecdochize? Wow....synecdoche is already a pretty obscure word...that one took some chewing on.

  2. Now for the interesting question - could this be significant enough to change the dynamic for the nomination? Could this cost Romney 5-10% of the primary vote?

    I tend to think probably not, but it is the last best chance for a Santorum insurgency.

  3. For those who are convinced that "campaign gaffes don't matter in the general election"--are you *sure* that Gerald Ford's premature liberation of Poland in 1976 didn't cost him enough votes in Ohio and Wisconsin to give Carter the election?

    Remember, it's not enough to say that "most people" aren't affected by such gaffes. All that you need is for 0.8 percent of the voters in Wisconsin and 0.1 (!) percent in Ohio to change their minds. These are numbers far too small to be detected reliably by polls.

    Of course there are many things besides gaffes--and besides great "fundamentals' like the economy--that can decide close elections. I am pretty sure that if Elian Gonzalez had drowned--or if his mother had survived--Al Gore would have been the undisputed victor in Florida and the Electoral College in 2000.

  4. Jonathan, at some point I'd like to see you address the question of whether the series of Al Gore "lies" in 2000 - wholly manufactured by the RNC - affected that election. That was an instance where the opposition succeeded in creating a definition for the other side's campaign.

    Democrats are probably too milquetoasty to do such a thing, but it seems possible that the DNC, and the mainstream media, will still be making Etch-a-Sketch jokes come October.

  5. It is a stone cold lock that I will be making etch a sketch jokes come October, assuming Romney is the nominee.

  6. So, yes, the single moment has to be seen in the context of other moments

    I can easily see how etch-a-sketch will matter not at all in November, for while its hard to imagine anything overwhelming the etch-a-sketch meme, tomorrow is another day, with a new shiny controversy to occupy our attention. Lot of tomorrows between here and the election.

    I highlighted the Perry content because I'm curious whether political science has a view on whether etch-a-sketch gaffes make a difference, cumulatively, in the event the particular gaffe supports a larger, negative narrative.

    So for example, among the criticisms of Obama, flipflopper isn't typically one of them. Might an etch-a-sketch gaffe for Team Obama thus not be part of a larger problematic series of events, as it perhaps could for Romney?

    1. I've always believed the "invented the Internet" meme was important--not because anyone went into the voting booth thinking "I kinda like that Gore fella, but dang, anybody who falsely claims to have invented the Internet can't get my vote, so I'll pull the lever for Bush," but because it provided a key support for the narrative that Gore was a self-promoting liar. That was an idea promoted vigorously by the media, by comedians, and by the GOP, and I believe "invented the Internet" helped cement that narrative even if it didn't by itself sway a single voter.

      There's a little paradox of the heap in this question, as any individual moment like this in unlikely to make any difference, but many such moments might add up to something important. At the same time, I think the effect would still be pretty minimal--only in a very close election like 2000 would it have the potential to make a difference.

    2. Good argument about the paradox of the heap, Kylopod. There's a specific peculiarity of the Gore 2000 case which I think proves your point especially well:

      Inventing the internet = Gore as serial fabulist (great term from A. Sullivan re: Palin). Gore as serial fabulist = untrustworthy. Gore as untrustworthy = not likely to pursue progressive, liberal agendas. Gore not pursuing progressive agendas = the raison d'etre of the Nader candidacy (well, beyond his life otherwise being too boring in his little apartment).

      Nader received just under 100,000 votes in the 2000 election in Florida. Were 538 of those votes attributable to general Gore-distaste, a perception of untrustworthiness built on the internet invention and similar ideas?

      If one answers "no", they're left in the unenviable position of accounting for 99.5% of Nader's Florida votes using a heretofore undiscussed explanation.

    3. Kylopod, your chronology isn't quite right. "Invented the Internet" didn't create support for the idea that Gore was a self-promoting liar; it created the entire idea that Gore was a self-promoting liar. Before that CNN interview, no one had ever suggested that Al Gore was dishonest, or at least any more dishonest than any other politician. Prior to that, the big charge against him was something about fundraising in a Buddhist temple.

  7. I think that gets it exactly right...for the general election. But Klein also discusses Rick Perry's "oops" moment in the same terms, and I'm not convinced we want to think about it the same way.

  8. I think this is why JB needs to sell the term for when primary process is done.

    Campaigns get lazy. You've been pent up for months. Lots of anger.

    Staffs are still pretty insular.

    As an example, what where the kerry people doing when they allowed him to go out in yellow lycra. I knew there were big troubles right there.

  9. I think the most important question is, how much does the etch-a-sketch meme catalyze the suppression of nov gop turnout among voters disenchanted with Romney. An analogous question is: how much did the Tina Fey parody do to boost dem turnout in 08? I think it plausible that a dominant image can affect turnout on the margins, but I don't know if there are any empirical findings on this kind of thing.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?