Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Where Campaigns Work Well

A lot of people are commenting on a NYT story this morning about Barack Obama's difficulties in Pennsylvania, with liberals picking up on and frustrated by the attitudes reported by a local Obama supporter who seemed to understand that Obama was getting blocked by Republicans, but nevertheless just wanted Obama to cut through all of that and just get things done. Greg Sargent has a nice item with a follow-up on the supporter; Kevin Drum comments, too, as does Steve Benen, with each of them noting the skewed incentives involved in this kind of approach to the political system. Basically, their concern is that Republicans can deliberately ruin the country, but politically that will only hurt Obama.

I don't want to minimize the problem, which I agree is to some extent real, but I'd also put a bit of context around it.

We're now about eleven months out from the (general) election. Most people tune it out until, well, after the conventions, at any rate. And once they start paying attention, one of the things that campaigns are in fact very good at doing is giving people reasons for doing what they want to do anyway. That is, Obama supporters who at this point are inclined to vote for the president but upset about the economy or whatever are likely to express that as unease by saying, well, whatever comes to their minds, which might be all sorts of stuff. But once they start paying attention, you know what they're apt to say? You got it -- whatever the Obama ads are saying, and whatever the Obama surrogates are saying on their tightly disciplined appearances on every news show local and national, and whatever Obama himself is saying on the stump. Just as Republicans will wind up saying and believing whatever the GOP nominee is saying.

Most of us, most of the time, don't really have explanations for what's going on in the political world. Something is bad -- war, gas prices, unemployment? We have plenty of stuff in our heads about it, but no systematic reason to favor one reason over another, and so what we say often winds up sounding, to professionals, as poorly thought out or confused. Ah, but then: the campaign comes, and the politicians and other opinion leaders we tune in to supply us with explanations, probably incorporating some of that "plenty of stuff" (but selectively, leaving out the parts that make the wrong side look good!). And we wind up not only believing it, but believing that we always believed it. Which, in a way, we sort of did, but in a more straightforward way we really didn't.

Now, of course, there are real swing voters out there, and they might actually choose between the competing explanations that politicians are giving them during the campaign, although even there I suppose most of them decide first and come up with reasons later. But as far as partisans are concerned, the overwhelming majority of them are going to wind up back with their own party's candidate, and the campaign will do an excellent job of teaching them to explain why they're there.


  1. I don't think people are really worried that folks like Corey O'Brien (you know, the one who has apparently never heard of a "filibuster" or "checks and balances" or "the 2010 House election results") will actually vote Republican. I mean, the guy (gal?) is a Democratic elected official, after all. When push comes to shove, O'Brien will pull the lever for the President.

    The real problem revealed by this article is that Democrats and Obama have apparently abjectly failed in communicating, even to party insiders, what proper expectations should be for a Dem president with a GOP House and closely-split Senate.

    And, though you and I are fairly certain that Obama can count on the votes of people like O'Brien - isn't O'Brien the type of person that the less politically-tuned-in turn to for guidance, when they start paying attention? Most partisans will eventually come around, but, as you recognize, some will stay home. Combine them with the true independents, and you've got a lot of people who are susceptible to be influenced by dolts like O'Brien.

  2. Isn't enthusiasm level critical? Dems got waxed in 2010 not because they went out and voted R, but because they sat on their hands while tea party types showed up to vote.

    A lot of what campaigns do seems designed to pump up enthusiasm (not convert people). Is there much / any research on whether campaigns can really do much to pump it up?

    It also seems like this would be hard to measure - in my experience there is nothing like good numbers to generate enthusiasm!

  3. Very well put. An interesting side question is whether there's any historical data (or convincing but nonetheless more impressionistic and interpretive literature) on whether the illusion/myth of presidential power (in terms of domestic policy authority specifically) has grown, declined, or remained roughly constant over the decades. In other words, does Obama actually seem to be facing a set of voter attitudes that are uniquely misinformed or irrational? That seems to be the undercurrent to this blogosphere panic, and no one really tries to judge that, which they would have to in order to be convincing.

  4. Very nice description of how an election works. It strikes me how similar it is to the principle of quantum superposition, which holds that (wiki): "a physical system (say, an electron) exists in all its particular, theoretically possible states (or, configuration of its properties) simultaneously; but, when measured, it gives a result corresponding to only one of the possible configurations." Perfect.

  5. You say "there are real swing voters out there". What is the evidence for that? I am serious.

  6. Regarding the current narrative that PA is ripe for the GOP picking: Man, memories are short. Remember when McCain tried this one late in the 08 campaign? Every four years, the GOP tries to a build a narrative that one of the dems big presidential states is ready to fall to the GOP. In the 1990s, they always picked Cali for this, but since Cali has gone so heavily for the dems in presidential years, a new state gets that honor. It's my home state. Yay. To keep it real for a moment, no poll in the last few months, litteraly no poll, has shown Romney ahead of Obama in PA. They are, at most, tied. Maybe PA will be really close this year, I don't know. I hope it is, as it's probably good for PA. But let's not just eat up GOP electoral "analysis" which is usually just an unfounded inevitability narrative.

  7. Toomey elected over the lefty fav? Rendell tarred and feathered and run off to join Granholm in the lefty media cash buffet? Harrisburg gone bankrupt... the state capital? The Obamabots down to Independents by 20 points or more, and talking about writing off middle class white voters?

    Here in Michigan, the legendary "Reagan Democrats" up in Macomb County appear to be restive once again, and slammed the door shut on an intermediate school district tax grab a couple weeks ago. Butterfly wings?

    I'd say PA may already be gone. And if it does go, it'll take with it: IN, OH and likely IA, MI, WI and even MN. But Pennsylvania will definitely be the keystone state this presidential cycle. You can see the Obamabots well recognize it, too. Lose that, and it's all over. And right now, they're losing it.


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