Saturday, July 24, 2010

Political Junkies Beware

I said: 
For what it's worth, YouGov/Economist has [Palin] leading the horse race with 28%; that doesn't strike me as a very impressive total for a candidate with excellent name recognition against a bunch of unknowns.
To which commenter  Mercer replied:
I would not describe Huck and Romney as unknown. 
Well, yes and no.

Here's the deal.  For most of the people reading this, the presidential primary season in 2007-2008 went on for months.  There were debates, and announcements of candidacy, and adds, and blog posts, and more debates, and Iowa, and New Hampshire, and Nevada and South Carolina, and that Florida and Michigan thing, and Super Tuesday, and then on through the rest of the calendar.  On the GOP side, there was John McCain, frontrunner, followed by John McCain, collapsed campaign...there was Romney, and there was new hope Fred Thompson, and there was Rudy Giuliani waiting in the wings, and then Thompson faded, and Huckabee won Iowa, and McCain was suddenly back, and then Romney won somewhere, and...well, you remember it.  Because you're far, far, more interested in this stuff than 90%, maybe 99%, of the American people -- or else you wouldn't be reading this!

For most people, the 2007-2008 primary season was somewhere in the background for a while...there was Hillary Clinton, and then a funny-named guy, and then suddenly it came to my state and for two weeks I had these damn ads on my TV every time I flip the channel and then it went away, and Jay Leno was making fun of a bunch of pols like he always does and there were a new set of names but the jokes were just the same (Those politicians?  They're all crooks!  Hahaha), and then, oh, it's an election year and the candidates are McCain and Obama and there are more ads that won't go away.  

Pick something that you pay no attention to.  For my dad, I always suggest NASCAR.  My dad has read a sports page every day since he was a little kid; he still gets (as do I) a real, honest-to-goodness local newspaper on his front porch every morning.  He must have seen the names of NASCAR drivers thousands of times, but odds are he's only stopped to read a story if it had something in the headline that really caught his attention (someone from the Bronx, or Jewish, or both, might do it).  If you asked him to name a NASCAR driver he'd probably look at you as if you were nuts...but if you named some of them, he'd probably recognize the names.  The idea is that lots and lots of people have about that level of knowledge about most of what happens in politics.  It's just background noise.  We, the people who write and read political blogs, and watch debates, and pay attention to politics even in the off season --we're the minority.

Of course, with politics unlike sports, we're "supposed" to be paying attention, and a lot of people probably don't like to admit that they really aren't.  So when the pollsters come around and ask what you think of Mitt Romney?  It's a name you heard at some point, and you might even know he's a Republican, and beyond that not much, but it's not too hard to say whether you like him or not.  And to be fair, if we're talking primary voters, we're really not talking about my dad and NASCAR.  It's more like a sports fan's 6th or 7th sport she follows.  That's how I am these days with hockey -- I wound up watching several games of the NHL finals this year, but if you had asked me about Detroit's team in mid-season I'd have had no idea, and if you asked me now I'm not sure I could remember anyone, although back then I could have talked about it with you a little, and I may tune in again next spring. 

So, yes, Huck and Romney aren't complete unknowns.  But for most primary voters, they might as well be.   More generally, it's just real hard sometimes for those of us who pay a lot of attention to politics to get around the idea of how little attention most others pay, including the broad category of those who vote most of the time but that's about it.


  1. Excellent point. There's Iowa and New Hampshire, where anyone with a minimal interest in politics gets several months of exposure to all the candidate. And there's all the other states, where the campaign lasts for a couple of days.

    One quibble is that Romney and Huckabee have gotten a lot of exposure on Fox News and the like long after the 2008 campaign. So I think they are well-known among hard-core Republican primary voters, if not those who only turn out in high-profile contests.

  2. Well played, sir!

    A few marginally relevant comments:

    1) I'm a huge Red Wings fan, and I couldn't tell you much about them mid -season either. I really get into it after the Super Bowl.

    2) Democracy assumes an intelligent and informed electorate. Without it, we get what you are describing. Which is why democracy is failing in this country. Maybe that is why, historically, democracies have a finite life time.

    3) Life is hard. After a day of slinging whatever from 9 to 5, parent teacher confs. and all the other stuff of life, the universe, and everything, who wants to think about something as arcane and intrinsically difficult as politics? Especially when the BIG GAME is on. Ergo, no. 2.

    4) NASCAR sucks rhinoceros. But that's just my opinion.

    5) With international corporations so much in control of both parties, it's pretty easy to think "There's not a dime's worth of difference." This makes apathy a pretty inviting option. Ergo, no.2.

    6) There is so much deliberate misinformation: Obama is an Arab Nazi socialist, Bush tax cuts didn't increase the deficits because they lead to a (god help us) "vibrant" economy; that finding real information and sorting wheat from chaff takes considerable effort. Ergo, no.2.

    Aren't we kinda screwed?

  3. Interesting comments.


    Yes, they've been on Fox, but that's still a small group of hard-cores, even compared to presidential primary voters, would be my guess. I should look up some numbers, though.


    I do not agree that "Democracy assumes an intelligent and informed electorate." There are people who do think that, but I think they're dead wrong.

    I also don't think it takes a whole lot of information to see that there is, in fact, plenty of difference between the parties on lots of things that matter to lots of people -- although you're right that "not a dime's worth of difference" has always been a popular sentiment, true or not. I don't think that's where apathy or lack of engagement comes from; I think your point #3 is far more on the mark.

  4. I'm sorry but there's no way your audience is mainstream enough to be the 90% percentile in terms of paying attention to politics. Maybe 99%, although that still sounds a little more generalist to me- more like the readership of Chait's or Yglesias' blog, which are a little less dry and academic. Not to be disparaging or anything but I suspect your audience is largely politics uber nerds.

  5. Johnathon -

    I do not agree that "Democracy assumes an intelligent and informed electorate." There are people who do think that, but I think they're dead wrong.

    This is a surprising statement. I'd love to see elaboration - especially if you think this is meaty enough for a post topic.


  6. Those clowns in congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.

  7. Jazz -- look thru Jonathan's archives over the last month or so (that's how long I've been reading, anyway). He has a bunch of political-theory posts about how the Madisonian system is supposed to be based on structures, institutions, and interest group tensions and so forth. I'm not entirely sure I agree, though of course I'm not a political scientist. But these posts have definitely re-framed the way I read some of the political developments I see unfolding.

  8. I think the politically involved underestimate the impact on name recognition of being on the ticket in the general election. Need to find Biden's numbers from 2006 to compare to today. Arguably he was more important then than now.

    For Palin, she has managed to raise her general news profile with an assist from the Levi/Bristol tabloid saga.

  9. I do not agree that "Democracy assumes an intelligent and informed electorate." There are people who do think that, but I think they're dead wrong.

    Yes, please, please, please do elaborate. This is one of my favorite topics and I'd love to hear your take.

  10. JzB & Anon,

    As ResumeMan said, it's something that does come up once in a while, when I talk about democracy. I'll think about doing a post on it...I'm actually halfway through with writing the long-promised imperial presidency post, so maybe it'll be my next thing I'll say is what I'm trying to get to soon.

  11. How easy it is to forget. In 1968, I worked for a time in the NY State office of the Eugene McCarthy campaign. Mind you, we were in the heart of midtown Manhattan (Columbus Circle) and although there were many McCarthy buttons on lapels in the street, I was often doing phone duty and I was amazed at how little many of the callers understood what was going on...and presumably they watched television and/or read the Daily News (the Post, pre-Murdoch was very liberal then, so it was the DN which was the tabloid of the day). My favorite memory is of the lady who thought Gene McCarthy (from Minnesota) was Joe McCarthy (from Wisconsin, and dead for 11 years). Then I understood why so much time and money had to be spent on just getting the name out. I don't think that much has changed.


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