Friday, September 21, 2012

More on Why Romney Goes With Such Weak Stuff

Yesterday over at PP I argued that GOP obsession with "vetting" Barack Obama, and with a variety of ill-fated attack lines, comes from two things: the divergence of incentives between the Romney campaign and what my brother calls the "movement conservative marketplace"; and, the closed information loop that makes it difficult for insiders to have any sense of how outsiders would see these attack lines.

As Romney rolled out yet another of these insipid, implausible campaign talking points, however, it occurs to me that there's yet another reason that the GOP-aligned media makes it more likely that Romney will do these sorts of things, even if they don't actually move voters. I was thinking earlier that it was a case of the Republican press influencing the campaign: they keep talking about something, and Romney feels pressure to start talking about it too. But there's a laziness to all of this too, which is also a function of how easily influenced Fox News and the rest of them are. In the old days, a campaign would come up with a theme or a line-of-the-day, and then would have to work really hard to insert it into the (neutral) media. Oh, you could do it, but it took message discipline and some real effort.

But that's not true with campaigns right now and the partisan press -- and no question but that it's far more developed on the Republican side, although it certainly exists on both sides. All Romney's campaign has to do is pull out a sentence and call it a gaffe, and it instantly becomes one. It blows up on twitter, it goes straight to Fox News and most of the conservative radio shows...it's all over the place. Indeed, if it's in those places, it's also going to be in Politico and Buzzfeed, too. So on the one hand, it must encourage laziness to know that all you have to do is come up with something vaguely appropriate to movement conservatives in order to get that effect; on the other hand, it must just feel as if you're making something happen when you do it. And the more it hits the sort of things that the GOP-aligned media loves, the more you get the immediate effect. Really, for campaign operatives, it must be incredibly temping to do it.

There are even internal bureaucratic incentives. After all, it's never easy to measure whether some campaign line moved voters, but it's easy to measure how much it resonated in the press. And the more it appeals to movement conservatives in the media, the more you'll get that "hit."  So if you're in the Romney press office, it's just incredibly easy to monitor the president's speeches, pull out a "gaffe," turn it into a firestorm, and show your bosses that you've been productive. Sure, it might blow over in 24 hours without actually having any effect at all on voters, but who is going to point that out...in the midst of a campaign, who will even know?

Such incentives exist when you're trying to directly score with the neutral press, too, but it's a whole lot harder, and so presumably there's more of an incentive to work hard at it -- and to save the effort for the ones you really think will work (on voters).


And even worse: campaign professionals within the nominee's candidacy may well find the prospect of working for Fox News a lot more appealing than either working in the White House or returning to the campaign trail with the next candidate -- and so pleasing the conservative-aligned media might be at least compete on even terms with winning the election as a personal career incentive for top campaign staffers.


So overall you have several institutional incentives all pushing Republican presidential campaigns towards, well, mediocrity. There's pressure from the movement conservative marketplace to create "products" (as David S. Bernstein puts it) that can be sold to the marks who they make money off of instead of points that will push swing voters; there's the danger of a closed information feedback loop which makes it harder for the campaigns to even see those swing voters; and there's the personal rush and career rewards that come creating and placing flaps in the press, whether they help the campaign or not.

37 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Here's a little more analysis from a slightly different angle. When you have to avoid campaigning on issues, as I think Romney (and to a lesser extent Obama) is trying to do, you need to focus on other things.

      However, the vacuum is even worse for the news outlets, because they have to fill the airtime. So gaffes are it.

      I'm guessing that there are lots of people who spend their days trawling for gaffe material. This is not just people working for campaigns, but also for the Daily Show (obviously), cable news networks, researchers for talk radio shows, researchers for partisan blogs etc. And there are also the tens of thousands of volunteers who will forward what they find. How do you think Breitbart ended up with video of Shirley Sherrod? This is the modern equivalent of panning for gold.

      The campaigns probably have their respective libraries of gaffes that they will release when the news cycle isn't going their way. Hence, the 1988 Obama audio about redistribution released this week in response to the 47% video. However, the management of gaffe release is complicated by all the free agents out there who probably won't adhere to a campaign's timeline.

      It's too bad that this is what we're getting instead of substantive campaign coverage, but it's not largely the media's fault. Hopefully the debates will end the campaign-by-gaffe period and move us to an issues-based campaign. But I'm not betting on it.

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  2. Jonathan, have you seen this Obama ad?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=5X3LGAXVd80

    It strikes me as the antidote.

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  3. It's almost as if Romney campaign staff senses they are going to be unemployed in two months, and so they are auditioning for Fox News gigs!

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  4. Great post JB. This is the kind of stuff I come to Plain Blog for.

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  5. And there's a response to the GOP campaign:


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5X3LGAXVd80

    I love this Obama Ad; takes the Romney to school for their failing grade.

    (second attempt at posting this; so please excuse if both show up.)

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    1. Thanks, zic. This is a very funny video. It's only 1.5 minutes, but feels like a breezy 30 second spot.

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  6. Obama said it well. Romney shoots and then aims. You see it time after time where he literally doesn't stop to listen or figure anything out for a true meaning. Heaven help us if he wins!

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  7. You're mostly on the spot here.

    And yes, eager government beavers have learned you make a lot more money from Fox News than as a government official. Not that is new, but before you had to intern at the government for a while.

    Also: this stuff used to work, maybe 10 year ago, but since 2000, not at all.

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  8. This latest gaffe creation makes the least amount of sense. "You didn't build that" or "The private sector is doing fine" at least supported conservative fears about an evil socialist or incompetent Obama. The notion that you need outside pressure to change Washington? I honestly have no clue where they are going with that.

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  9. What's also interesting is the contrast with the Obama campaign:

    *In the 2007-08 primary campaign, Obama's message was "Change We Can Believe In".
    *In the 2008 general election, Obama's message was "Change We Need".
    *Since April of this year, Obama's message has been "Forward.".

    In each case, the slogan encapsulates the campaign's understanding of the election and what strategy will best help the candidate win.

    And then the Obama campaign weaves all of its tactical actions (press releases, attack ads, "positive" ads, "comparison" ads, direct mail, online, conventions, debates, rallies, etc.) into and around that central strategic vision.

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  10. > So overall you have several institutional incentives
    > all pushing Republican presidential campaigns
    > towards, well, mediocrity.

    It's worse than that. It is pushing them into Fantasyland.

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  11. Well, whatever Willard said, he musta drew blood, if you lefties are whining and chirping this wildly about it. ;-)

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    1. No, I think they're pointing and laughing.

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    2. So that's what you lefties call it now? ;)

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    3. When Mitt Romney maneuvers himself into the position of the "Washington Insider" six weeks before the election... VOLUNTARILY???

      You bet we're laughing, Romney built that gaffe all on his own.

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  12. If all you liberals really think that Obama is going to do any better a second time around, you all should get your heads checked. All I have seen from him is a failing economy, increased debt, rediculously expensive vacations, increased unemployment, lies, laziness, increased created animosity between ethnic groups, and increased abuse of government programs. Obama is a communist who is trying to destroy this great country. I don't need any news channel to show me these things

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    Replies
    1. But you do need a news channel to convince other people. I should say another news channel because it appears that Fox News, much like the Romney campaign, is not up to the job.

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  13. I think "us leftist" are mostly just perplexed that this is all the Rs got. Unless the voter suppression tactics work better than anyone could have hoped for, we can stick a fork in this race. It's over.

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  14. While it is easy to make fun of politicians like Pawlenty, he is by no means a light weight even if he did drop out early this cycle. He was Minnesota's most conservative governor in probably a few generations. In fact, the previous GOP governor, Arnie Carlson, was a popular pro-choice Republican who won in big landslides but did not pursue a right wing agenda at all. In addition, Pawlenty won re-election in a 2006 cycle that saw a Democrat, Amy Klobuchar, win her senate seat by more than 20%, saw a lot of legislative races go from red to blue and a high school history teacher name Tim Walz beat an entrenched Republican a what was considered a "safe" rural GOP congressional district.

    So he's no light weight even if Ames didn't go his way. And it's not like you couldn't wait six weeks before selling out for a dump truck of special interest cash. It you wanted to be a high powered lobbyist, would you want to piss off someone who could be President in a few months? I wouldn't, Pawlenty's bailing on the mitterst is not exactly a vote of confidence.

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  15. I love they are doing this. While they fill up their minds with this "feel good" nonsense they are wasting news cycles.

    Imagine how devastating Romney COULD have been had he put forward a somewhat credible set of plans and a real vision rather than all this vapor?

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  16. When the Dems come out with an attack line I love, I'll be the first to admit that I haven't a clue as to how it will play out to the average persuadable American. Compared to them I am a hyper-partisan (for the truth), hyper-informed voters.

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  17. This is in response in to Anonymous written at 251p. I despise seeing comments like yours. It shows one thing when u make these rants and raves about President Obama. I'm not even going to take my time to correct all your faulty conclusions. As an example is your complaint about continuing debt. He was left with an excess of 3 trillion dollar debt. The country goes on living debt keeps occurring grandma and grandpa keep getting their Social Security checks, they keep going to the Dr. MEDICARE keeps paying the bills. That debt added to the 3 trillion already on the books, the million a day we're spending in Afghanistan daily.Debt added to debt is MORE debt. I see some personal snippets that make me think President's Obamas skin color might have a lot to do with your complaints. I see a man that puts in 20 hrs a day. U say lazy? Explain that. Expensive vacations? The President can't take a 2 Wm vacation? U need to get your news from a new source that is fact-checked and respected. Try NYTimes. Read Professor Krugmanscolumn. Easy to read.Can a person stop being racist? That would at the least take effort on your part.We're going to have more black Presidents. Get over the pettiness.

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  18. Glad to have analysis that looks at the rabid right machine that life is too short for me to follow. Fox is becoming comical, with their day-long riffs on Obama meeting with a pirate in costume but doesn't have time for Netanyahu, failing to note that the photo is from President Obama's 2009 correspondents dinner comedy stylings.

    But I am noticing something different right now: the media is not taking the bait. The Romney campaign seems to have lost all credibility with the non-Foxandfriends media. Fascinating.

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    1. Good of you to acknowledge that the MSM is leftist.

      Others but especially Gallup has previously documented that you hard lefties were the last holdouts on that score, and the rest of us, the supermajority, agrees on that point. You now make it unanimous, then. That's progress.

      It was amusing in 2010, when the lefty MSM ignored the soon-to-come shellacking that November, which was obvious to any sentient observer. Those media degenerates pretty much lost all credibility in that cycle, and apparently even you now acknowledge that, which as I say is progress.

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  19. 110+ rounds of golf, 17 vacations. Obysmal hasn't focused on a laser on jobs like he said he would - hasn't met with his job council in > 6 months. He just keeps taking while the serfs suffer. It is good to be king.

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  20. I can't believe that in all of the presidential campaign coverage I've watched I've never heard this (now obvious) fact pointed out. You really nail it. It seems like both camps but Romney's especially just picks a different theme each day in a random, kind of desperate way, hoping something sticks. It's like they feel responsible for providing journalists with something to write about (instead of having story ideas generated BY journalists).

    You can see the effort this taking after months of primary campaigns and now this final push. I'm surprised that Romney PR staff have hung in there so long. I'd be exhausted. It's like they have devoted staff members watching President Obama's every move or word, waiting for something they can capitalize on. This is such a short-term way of running a campaign. Romney should be talking to voters, the people he needs to inspire, not promoting an "Obama Watch" reality show.

    I remember seeing James Carville speak and while a lot of his presentation was total BS, I remember he said that in a presidential campaign, the candidate who presents the most optimistic vision of the future will be the one who wins. I realize how hard that is in this economic climate and I don't think either candidate is really delivering this. But I think Romney's focus on anti-Obama, rather than pro-Romney is just a fatal mistake on his part.

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    1. Another problem for Romney is that -- ironically -- its scattered tactical direction has itself become predictable, such that the Obama campaign will likely be having more and more fun using purported gaffes as a way to T up their own changes in emphasis.

      Very plausibly, this most recent 'gaffe' (about 'changing Washington from inside') was a well-executed trap.

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  21. The interesting thing for me is that Romney 2.012 seems much the same as 2.008 -- I remember being disgusted by his pettiness, and worried that we'd eat it up.

    Which suggests to me that this petty gaffe-chasing is 'overdetermined' -- a lot of these points you make seem plausible, but it's equally plausible that Romney is himself essentially a tactical campaigner.

    He and his closest advisors have done little or nothing to provide needed strategic guidance for his staff, and so, as people hired to oversee operations at a tactical level, they simply do what they do best.

    NB. Bill Clinton's 1992 maxim: "it's the economy, stupid" reflected the realization by his closest staff and -- presumably -- Candidate Clinton himself that a campaign's natural tendency is to descend into the tactical weeds.

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    1. Might be worth noting that Romney is 1-2 as a campaigner. 2-2 if you include winning the GOP nomination this year, but that was hardly an epic contest.

      In light of recent reports, Romney carpet bombing each successive 'not-Romney of the month' in the primaries may be the worst use of campaign funds since Hillary blew $36 million of her war chest grinding John Spencer to dust in her '06 NY Senate race.

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    2. I disagree with one thing here: winning a presidential nomination is always an impressive accomplishment, full stop.

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    3. Guess I'm forgetting my Invisible Primary here, because I'd say only Pawlenty, Huntsman and Perry were at all serious candidacies. And while Perry did achieve front-runner status, that was more based on anticipation than anything the Texas governor delivered.

      Romney won with cash (which he should gets credit for raising), and the odd factor of Ron Paul running interference with all the not-Romneys. RP may have won a place in the good graces of the party for Rand Paul, but he sure didn't seem to get much of a 'thank you' from Romney.

      Still feels to me like Mitt pulled the "You won 2nd place in a Beauty Contest, collect $10" Community Chest card.

      I also wonder if the Tea Party wave of 2010 convinced some of the more notable players on the Republican bench to pass on the race.

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    4. Willard made it plain that he'd destroy all opposition, and he had the cash to do it. That's what he did in 2008, and he spent upwards of $55M of his own cash in the 2008 effort, which got his name in front of the electorate and made him the front runner this cycle.

      So no, winning a presidential nomination is not always an impressive accomplishment. And this year is your proof of that. Neither of these 2 candidates accomplished anything impressive, imo. Given his failures, Obama would surely have faced a primary challenger this cycle, if he'd been a white man, so you can't call his nomination special in any way. And Romney is just an extremely well funded plastic hairdo. So any significant challenge was crowded out, in both cases.

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    5. Pro-tip: You might want to learn to stop arguing with the empty chair in which the fantasy president you've created in your imagination is 'sitting'.

      That's just ugly, ugly rhetoric.

      (P.S. - Just because trolls tend to come back with a juvenile retort of "yeah, but you didn't disagree with my point", I'll state for the record that I disagree with with your argument re: Obama as well.)

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  22. Well, I'd agree you are a "pro" hard lefty. ;-)

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  23. Since 2000, especially, the right wing ecosystem is like a country engaged in intellectual protectionism. It puts impossible barriers up for consider of NIH ideas to get considered on Faux News while allowing inferior ideas to have side exposure within the right wing ecosystem. Then when they try to export those ideas outside the ecosystem, they are finding them less and less competitive. The ecosystem has taken on the values and the operational effectiveness of a Stalinist state. The irony of the cries of soshulism are completely lost in their blind spots.

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  24. The other thing the right wing is slow to realize is that while a few years a go if Fox and AM radio beat the drum long enough on a manufactured story, that eventually the MSM would feel obligated to cover it, and in a manner that would lend the story credence. It seems they may have finally wised up after the wingers kept overplaying their hand.

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