Monday, September 24, 2012

A Quick Note on the Necessity of Spin

No, Jimmy Carter didn't really lead Ronald Reagan for most of the 1980 campaign, only to have Reagan suddenly surge from behind at the last minute (John Sides really took care of this a while ago).

But, you know, what's a campaign behind in the polls supposed to do? Of course they're going to find some historical evidence, no matter how dubious, to show that everything is going exactly as they want it to be. And they better do that; it would be irresponsible not to. After all, for a candidate who is not all that far behind but would need some external shock to change things (which is increasingly where it appears Mitt Romney is right now), the trick is to keep the situation from imploding so that even a significant external shock wouldn't be enough. Donors need to be told to keep giving, volunteers have to be inspired to keep volunteering...even the paid staff needs to be given some reason to believe they're not wasting their time.

It's not just the possibility of winning, either; even a doomed campaign, a Dole '96 or a Mondale '84, needs to maximize whatever vote it can get in order to avoid pulling the rest of the ticket down with them.

The Reagan/Carter/1980 thing is really just a twist on the old idea that every losing candidate in my memory would pitch themselves as Harry Truman, ready to hit the stump for personal campaigning that would turn the whole thing around. I guess the 1980 version of it appeals to Republicans because it's Reagan...and I suppose there's at least some vague analogy in the economic situation, although not really.

There's another piece of this, which is the constant partisan arguments about individual polls -- that the sample is wrong, or whatever.

The key is that unless one is that these are really pretty innocent lies. I mean, it's fine for reporters or pundits to call them out on it, but it's not on the same scale as, say, lies about policy or about the opponent's character. Just stipulate that both sides are going to  interpret the polls in whatever way serves their interest, and that no campaign is going to admit that it has little or no chance to win. It's not lazy mendacity for Republicans to dredge up this particular myth; it's really the only responsible way to run a campaign.


  1. The other reason 1980 is the reference instead of 1948 is simple optics.

    "Well, it happened once before, when there were 102,000 TVs in the US (two thirds of which were in NYC), and undecideds made up a very large portion of the samples"

    "Well, it happened before most voters were born"

    No, Reagan/Carter is more accessible, and the GOP likes the analogy to the economic situation (AND to the incumbent president's fecklessness)

    1. You'd think some of them wouldn't like comparing Mitt Romney to Ronald Reagan.

  2. I keep saying that the GOP should go for the 1976 analogy. When else has a not-terribly-unpopular incumbent who started his term with a national crisis lost to a one-term Governor distrusted by the party base?

  3. Oh, and there are other examples of this kind of thing. I've seen the 2010 Senate elections in Nevada and Colorado get invoked constantly as reasons why such-and-such candidate might still win if they run a really aggressive campaign. (Or: Tom Perriello's campaigns for the House in Virginia.)

    I'm sure Republicans have their sometimes specious down-ballot analogies too. (Dave Reichert vs. Darcy Burner in 2006 and 2008?)

    Plenty of reasons why those circumstances might not always apply, and of course, as I think Brendan Nyhan pointed out, plenty of Democrats ran aggressive campaigns and lost anyway, because they had better opponents or less favorable constituencies or whatever.

    Personally, I find it pretty annoying, but you're right that it's silly to expect anything else from a campaign, although I don't mind reporters or journalists pointing out the differences.

  4. Yes, I'd also say there's strong incentives in terms of high level campaign staff to come up with spin like this as well. People don't want to loose their jobs and take the blame for why a campaign is floundering, so even if they accept defeat privately they can come up with all sorts ridiculous arguments to look like they are doing a great job. After all, you only have to make it 45 more days and then can go on to your next gig and just blame everything on Mitt not being a "true conservative" if you lose. But if you are Romney's communications director and get fired tomorrow, you might get blamed by your replacements or other party actors for why the ads are bad or your message isn't getting through. Campaigns are also weird in that they are temporary organizations where it is really difficult to measure how effective people are, especially at the highest level (with a field organizer, the sort of foot soldier on campaigns, you can measure how many people came to an event or how many volunteers are recruited for a door knock, its very difficult to tell if a campaign manager is doing the best they can in a difficult race OR they really did screw everything up.) In addition, there's a lot of creditialism based on previous experience, so once you become the national political director for a nominee you are considered to be a genius, even if you are an idiot, because there's little institutional memory and deference towards experience. So the result is middle level people might try and throw their bosses under the bus and take their jobs, not because they think they'll do better (so often they do think that) but because if they can get to the next "level" on a campaign-even a losing one for a month-a lot of professional doors will open for them. The result can be weird chaos that is a mixture of tragedy and farce. There's great descriptions of it happening on Dole 88' campaign in "What It Takes" and on Hillary's in "Game Change."

  5. One (of many) reasons Carter was hated by Congressional Democrats was that in 1980, he conceded the race before polls on the West Coast had closed, dragging down Democrats down the ticket. To Carter, he was being gentlemanly and manning up to the fact that he had definitely lost; to the party, he was being a self-regarding incompetent who either didn't know or didn't care that his campaign was tied to the campaign of every other Democrat.

  6. Actually, I'd say this hard Left site is spinning that the Willardbots are behind big.

    Gallup and Rasmussen are the only tracking polls out, and neither supports what you lefties are spinning here, fyi.

    And you lefties are mixing apples and oranges. A Reagan double digit lead/win in 1980 doesn't compare to a tossup race in 2012. It's 2 different things. The generic polls are about tied, and the tracking polls seem tied, and I see no indication that this will be anything other than a non-wave election, meaning close races are subject to go either way.

    You lefties don't want to get caught believing lefty spin again, do you? Remember what happened in the 2010 shellacking? You lefties all believed that spin, and were stunned when the long expected shellacking happened that November.

    I mean, it was impossible for you to comprehend that those stupid voters would turn out your heroes. I found it amusing at the time, an election one could see shaping for over a year previous, and certainly over the preceding 3-4 months... and yet you lefties were so surprised by it all.

    I'd ignore the lefty spin, unless you want to risk another broken heart. ;-)

    1. I got a chuckle out of that sabermetric geek Silver in 2010. He was spinning so hard he even started believing his own spin. ;-)

    2. Nate Silver, November 1 2010:

      Tonight, our forecast shows Republicans gaining 53 seats — the same as in recent days, and exactly the same answer you get if you plug the generic ballot average into the simple formula. Our model also thinks the spread of potential outcomes is exceptionally wide: its 95 percent confidence interval runs from a 23-seat Republican gain to an 81-seat one.

  7. just a twist on the old idea that every losing candidate in my memory would pitch themselves as Harry Truman

    The last candidate to do that, not surprisingly, was John McCain. Mitt's substitution of the 1980 race is probably just one more example of the GOP's full descent into the right-wing Fox universe. That's not to say the right doesn't invoke "Dewey Defeats Truman." It's something they do to justify their skepticism of public opinion polls (and of the media in general). In fact, I get the sense that Republicans invoke it much more than Democrats. In addition to McCain, Bush Sr. invoked it in '92 (and got into a little trouble with Truman's daughter when he suggested Truman would be a Republican if he were alive then), as did Dole in '96. Did Dukakis invoke it? I can't remember. He was the last Democratic presidential nominee to be trailing his opponent by a large margin in the weeks leading up to Election Day.

    But the 1980 election has long had an almost totem-like quality in the Fox and talk radio universe; it is invoked as the be-all, end-all of presidential races, and the ultimate proof that (a) America is a conservative country (b) nominating a true conservative is the GOP's path to victory (c) the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. "Dewey Defeats Truman" is still a pretty mainstream reference point; the Ascent of St. Ronnie is a lot more part of the right-wing information bubble.

    1. I distinctly remember Lloyd Bentsen using a "Dewey Defeats Truman" banner as a prop toward the end of th '88 campaign, so at the very least the Dukakis campaign was using the meme, if not Dukakis himself.

  8. A few thoughts on why Reagan, rather than Truman, is being used here. First, Truman was the incumbent, while Reagan was challenging an incumbent. The Truman example reminds people that the incumbent can make big gains late, which is counterproductive for Romney.

    Another issue, I think is that Truman turned things around by intense retail level campaigning across the country. Reagan supposedly turned things around by his debate performance. Romney, so far as I can gather, isn't really doing the former, and the Truman analogy would remind people that the supposed Trumanesque candidate is not actually barnburning around the country giving energetic speeches.

    1. Those are very good points. Still, as far as I can remember Dole never invoked the 1980 race when he was losing in '96; he did invoke Truman. And he was a challenger to a Democratic incumbent whom Republicans at the time did try to paint as another Carter.

      One thing your comment made me realize is that Romney's analogy further heightens his need to perform well in the debates. That's probably the opposite of what he should be doing. It's traditional for candidates to lower expectations about their debate performances and to praise the debating skills of their opponents, so when they finally do enter the debate, they exceed expectations. (Kerry played that game very well in 2004.) Now, instead, there's an increasing sense in the media that Romney has to deliver a knockout punch in the debates in order to survive the campaign. Bringing up the Reagan-Carter example (apocryphal or not) only enhances that narrative.


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