Thursday, November 18, 2010

Name Recognition Won't Help Romney

Name recognition is not an asset in presidential campaigns.

I mentioned this last week, but I stuck it at the end of a longer post, so I'll repeat it here.  Name recognition is, in fact, important in American politics.  But its importance is limited to contexts in which there are significant gaps between how well candidates are known.  That happens all the time in House contests, and even in elections for Senate or governor, and it certainly happens in downballot races.

But not in presidential elections.  At least not among major candidates.

Here's Philip Klein making the case for Mitt Romney:
[D]espite his weaknesses as a candidate, he also brings a number of advantages. Romney would enter the race with far higher name recognition than he did his first time around and a broad national political organization that has been building up good will by helping Republican candidates in key states. He also enjoys a vast fundraising network.  
He's correct about the importance of a national organization, good will among GOP pols, and the fundraising network.  Those are good points.  But name recognition?  Nope.

Look, no one right now knows who Tim Pawlenty or Mike Pence is.  So if you take a poll, they'll lag behind -- they're behind, for example, formerly famous person Newt Gingrich.  And both of them may wash out as presidential candidates; in fact, I give Pence little chance of winning.  However, the public portion of the campaign is starting now.  Candidates are starting to travel to Iowa and New Hampshire.  They'll soon start advertising in those states, appearing on local TV and radio, and spreading hired staff and volunteers around.  The national public campaign is beginning, as well; candidates are turning up on conservative talk shows, and in spring 2011 debates will begin.  Endorsements will follow.  All of that will produce plenty of name recognition for those who do well at those stages.

If Pawlenty and Pence do what they need to do to win this year, then by February 2012 they'll be well known among Republican caucus-goers in Iowa.  If they do what they need to do this year and in Iowa, they'll be well known among Republican primary voters in New Hampshire.  And if they do what they need to do this year, in Iowa, and in New Hampshire, they'll be well known nationally -- just as unknown Gary Hart became well known after winning in New Hampshire, just as Bill Clinton went from unknown to having 100% name recognition over the year ending with the New Hampshire primary.

Of course, if they don't do those things, they'll remain unknowns, and their campaigns will not last long (although even there, I suspect that name recognition for also-rans in Iowa is pretty high; I'd guess that most people who bothered to show up on caucus night in 2008 knew about Fred Thompson or Bill Richardson, and probably even Duncan Hunter or Mike Gravel).  Once you get to Super Tuesday, name recognition can be the immediate explanation for why the also-rans remain also-rans -- or why they drop out.  But those who do succeed early will receive (and generate) plenty of publicity, more than enough to make them household names.

So, when you do see early primary polling, remember that name recognition is a big factor in the results so far -- and that by the time the voters get involved, that factor will wash out.


  1. Of course name recognition doesn't matter. Republicans just choose the next one in line anyway. ;-)

    You're exactly right, though. Name recognition counts at the beginning (and middle parts) of the invisible primary, not during the actual primaries. Those endorsements, the FEC reports and straw poll wins (and to a much lesser degree, debate performances) have a way of evening any name recognition out. There's a reason for why when McCain slipped throughout the early part of 2007 that Giuliani became the one to beat: name recognition. Once the race got closer to actual contests however, that ceased to be the case.

    [Granted, to some extent that result was colored by the fact that Giuliani opted to skip Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to focus on Florida. But still, that was only part of the issue. Of course, that bring us back to a discussion of the calendar and that has yet to be set at this point. But that's a discussion for another time.]

  2. Yes, but how about name recognition affecting those things that hack reporters report on, and that in turn, affecting money or other important things?

    Hack reporter only gives ink to the top 4-5 in polling -> tangentially informed voters think that one of those 4-5 is worth $100 -> they have money, and are able to get a ground operation and run ads -> those things have effects.


    Hack reporters make the dynamic of the race "this guy vs the rest" or some other silly trope because of polling -> straw poll wins, FEC reports, endorsements, whatever are then interpreted through the lens of this narrative.

    So, for example, Bill Richardson goes NOWHERE in 2008. It can't be the resume. His politics are pretty acceptable (against Iraq, for example). Yes, his appearances had all the charisma of a wet sponge. But most people nationally didn't see that, or his debates. So, he couldn't raise much money, and couldn't run his actually pretty good ads heavily. Perhaps more importantly, he couldn't be considered a contender, and the race is all about Obama and Clinton.

    By mattering early, can't name recognition serve to filter the field?

  3. I don't think you've provided evidence for your thesis. The main reason many of us believe name recognition counts in the GOP nominating process is that virtually all the recent GOP nominees were people with significant name recognition long before they were nominated. This was definitely true of McCain, Dole, the elder Bush, Reagan, Ford, and Nixon.

    The only possible exception is Dubya, but he was hardly a dark horse. He had national prominence for over a year before being nominated, he was the front-runner the entire time, and he shared the name and looks of the nation's previous president.

  4. Matt,

    Yes, but I think it's a pretty marginal effect.


    But the point is that in most of those cases, the nomination wasn't really open. Yes, GHWB was well-known in 1988, but that wasn't why he won; sitting VPs for an outgoing popular president always get the nomination. What matters is, mostly, choices of various party leaders, and if they settle on a Pawlenty or Thune, the lack of name recognition a year plus out won't matter much.

  5. >sitting VPs for an outgoing popular president always get the nomination

    It didn't happen in 1908 or 1928. Do you mean only in the modern primary era (1972 onward)? Still, the fact that vps are considered the natural successors today has probably more to do with precedent than with anything in the system itself. If Obama wins a second term with Biden on the ticket and is popular at the end, I have my doubts that the 72-year-old will inevitably be the nominee in 2016.

    Anyway, I'm still not seeing evidence for your assertions. I do agree that 2008 broke the apparent precedent that the Republican nominee is known early on. Still, McCain wasn't exactly a dark horse, and was his nomination really due to party leaders or to other candidates (principally Huck and Romney) canceling each other out in winner-take-all contests? But even granting your premise about party leaders, I don't see evidence that they'd be likely to settle on second-tier candidates like Pawlenty and Thune if they haven't already done so.


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