Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Romney and the Rally Effect

I said yesterday that Republicans don't appear to read political scientists on the subject of the effect of the economy on elections. But I've always suspected that sometime in the 1990s Republicans did read Richard Brody's classic article about the "rally effect" -- in which he found that "rally around the flag" effects depend on the reaction of the out-party, not (for example) whether the event in question is successful or not. If the out-party immediately criticizes the president, then he doesn't get a bump in his approval ratings; if they support him or stay quiet, then there's a positive bounce.

So if you're the out-party, always attack, right? That might be what was going through the minds of Mitt Romney and his campaign last night and this morning, and -- I speak here purely in terms of electoral politics, nothing more -- that's not a terrible instinct, based on the research.

But: why don't out-party politicians simply always attack the president on everything? Ah, that's a good question, and one that Team Romney might have asked itself before it jumped. The main reason is paradoxical, in a fun way. Out-party politicians often hesitate to attack during a foreign policy crisis because they're afraid that they'll be branded partisan during a time of national unity, for one thing. Those potential attacks might be unfair -- as Democrats during the Bush years correctly said, it's patriotic to dissent if you believe that the nation's policy is wrong -- but nevertheless, politicians must reckon with a national political culture that sometimes (and not entirely predictably) can turn against partisanship. The paradox part is that out-party politicians may refrain from attacking out of fear that the president's handling of the event will prove wildly popular, when it's the restraint from normal partisan attacks which actually signals to voters that the president did the correct thing and therefore makes the president's actions wildly popular.

That's one reason. The other reason is that out-party politicians are operating, usually, at a severe information deficit. Indeed: during events such as those in Libya and Egypt, the president himself often doesn't know what's happening; a campaign relying on CNN or, I don't know, its twitter feed maybe, is even more apt to get things wrong. And while no politician wants to be exposed as not knowing what he or she is talking about, presumably that's an even greater caution flag for a presidential candidate. Especially one without conventional foreign policy and national security credentials.

(Once again: this is all just about electoral-type politics and motivations. It's of course possible that out-party politicians might support the president because they believe that it's patriotic to do so during a crisis, or because they actually do support what the president is doing, and attacks could be because they really do believe the president has erred. Those things can happen! But they're beyond the scope of this post).

At any rate: none of this has much to do with whether Romney made the best choices last night and this morning, or whether the way he carried out his attack on Obama was well-done. I wrote a little about it over at PP, so there's more there. Here, I'm just thinking about the incentives that play into what he might be thinking.


  1. That paradox may be fun, but what it comes down to is this: there is no good political reason for a challenger to refrain from attacking the President during a time of national crisis.

    So, if Brody's theory still holds water, then there's no doubt that Romney did absolutely the right thing for his campaign by immediately attacking the president. (Whether it was the right thing for the country is another matter, of course.)

    On the other hand, I wonder if any of the cases studied by Brody involved an out-party candidate completely bungling the post-crisis attack like the Romney campaign did.

    It might be that garden-variety criticism of the president (i.e., one that isn't based on outright lies) has the effect of muting any "rally" bounce, but a completely mendacious attack (i.e., one that is obviously disingenuous and nakedly political) has the effect of amplifying it. We'll have to wait and see.

  2. I'm not sure I'd try to draw too many lessons about Romney's experience coloring his behavior. This whole campaign I've been particularly struck by how bad at this Team Romney is. Lots of experience campaigning shouldn't lead to bad campaigning. Yes, anyone with foreign policy experience would know that initial reporting from abroad is often bass-ackward, but any team with experience running big campaigns should know something similar. Romney's flubs on the follow-up to the "you didn't say Afghanistan/troops" stupidity demonstrate as much. It won't necessarily matter come November, and the attack on Romney was silly and stupid, but good staff should have prepped a better response before Baier, and certainly between Baier and Gregory.

    I'm not sure it's the staff, though (although, on the Libya thing, staff would have certainly weighed in.) Romney shows a particularly bad tin ear. His wealth is a problem, and he talks about his wife's Cadillacs and bets $10,000 in a debate (in a wager he would lose!). "The trees are the right height." I swear, every time I see Mitt Romney speak, I can't help but think of Lisa Simpson telling Krusty: "No! Connect!" ( It could be that our media environment has gotten to be such that we hear about all the little things. But, it just seems to me that Romney isn't particularly good at connecting with people. (Which, of course, says not very much about how effective of a president he would be, as our last 3 presidents have all been pretty good at this, and I doubt they will occupy similar rungs on the ladders of history)

    If I thought campaigns mattered much, I might say something like "Romney might lose an election that another Republican could have won." I don't think that's the case here. But neither do I think this is a case of "well, of course he looks bad, he's losing." He's down a point or three. I think he's actually just not good at this.

  3. I just don't see a lot of personal reflection on Romney's part. He chooses a strategy (attack Obama's word/actions) and sticks to it faithfully, without any concerns for ancillary costs for the country (like fanning international discord) or for whether it is actually working.

    You could say the same for a lot of Congressional Republicans on debt, or drought relief, or really much of anything. They hurt people, and they don't see it or care.

  4. I'm actually beginning to wonder if Republicans have already given up on Romney as president.

    First, there were the convention speeches; many seemed more introductory -- Chris Christy's for example, touting the future politicians with a lack of emphasis on a President Romney.

    Since the conventions, there seems to be a lot of punditry on the right expressing unhappiness with Romney, particularly 'he's not fighting/attacking enough.' So he attacks, and they say he did it wrong.

    I'm beginning to wonder if Republicans view this election as an opportunity to clear out some of the deadwood clogging their electoral hopes -- Romney, Ryan, and who knows who down ticket, so that they can groom a better roster of candidates for future elections.

    But no, they can't really be that organized, can they?

  5. ". . . when it's the restraint from normal partisan attacks which actually signals to voters that the president did the correct thing and therefore makes the president's actions wildly popular."

    There can also be clear positive outcomes, such as the fall of Qaddafi, that don't require much mediation (even if they are fairly rare).

  6. Well, attacking Obama for bowing and scraping to foreigners is gonna strike paydirt. Sure, you lefties all think it's illegitimate, but trust me, there's a seam of the electorate that will respond to the "Obama World Apology Tour 2009", as that was one of the things that turned Independents starting in Spring 2009.

    And when the Obamabots went nuts over that bewhiskered pastor burning korans a while back, and made it an international incident, and had the SecDef and generals speaking to it... they set themselves up for today's Willardian attacks over the Cairo embassy apologies. When it comes to the feds, free speech stupidity is to be ignored, and barbarians' barbarity is to be condemned. No exceptions. The Obamabots forgot this.

    That above mentioned seam of the electorate likes that Osama got double-tapped, and it doesn't like politicians who bow and scrape to the illegitimate sentiments of barbarians like Osama.

    Obama wants to be really careful with this one. The Willardbots are trying desperately to turn this election into 1980, even as the Obamabots are struggling to make it 1948 or 2004. A chaotic embassy incident(s) involving gangs of islamofascists, to whom Obama has previously made nice, might just help bend matters into 1980 territory.

  7. I think anonymous is basically correct in the assessment above, and (contra Andrew and others), it does seem to me there is a kernel of substance to Romney's attack, even if it was handled - in typical Romney style - hamhandedly.

    The issue is the loyalties of the Libyans taking a primary role in guarding that embassy, particularly at a very tense moment. Where was the loyalty of those guards? I know, I know, with Obama, because he gave a speech in Cairo and his middle name is Hussein and the Nobel Prize -

    Fact is, those guards are never gonna be better than frenemies of the US. They come from the same neighborhoods, worship at the same mosques, feel the same distrust, as the attackers. You can put your faith in liberal bonhomie, goodwill, or sense of duty for those guards to perform their tasks effectively; I'll take the fear of God and the might of the good old US of A that something really bad might happen to those guards or their family members if they don't.

    It may turn out that the Libyan guards weren't primarily responsible for the security breakdown; before that's known the story will be gone. If Romney were any good, he would have made this all clear, directly or indirectly. But I agree with Matt Jarvis: Romney really sucks at politics.

    1. Let me be clear: there is definitely reason to be critical of the administration here. The security in Benghazi failed. It failed in Cairo. And ultimately, that's on the boss's head.

      A competent GOP campaign would make Obama suffer for this.

      Fortunately for Obama, there is no competent GOP campaign running against him this year.

    2. Heck, a competent GOP campaign could probably take this all the way back to the Arab Spring stuff, and the overall handling of both Libya and Egypt by the Obama administration. Not saying I agree, but they could presumably make some substantive arguments there.

      But the Romney campaign will spend the vast majority of their time not doing that, because they're hung up on the "Obama apologizes for America" fantasy instead.

  8. I think mitt's blunder could be a good example of epistemological closure in the GOP. After all, the problem with mitt's actions is not just how he is politicizing a national tragedy or his refusal to say how his foreign policy would be different (although those are certainly problems), its that he got all of the basic facts wrong. The offending tweet was in no way from Obama or the White House, it was in line with previous communications from the Bush Administration in similar situations and it occurred before the attack in Libya even began, making his whole argument a "triple lie" as Jonathan Chait put it earlier today. It's kind of strange that a candidate for the Presidency did this, but then again if you live in a fantasy world where Obama is this un-American weakling constantly kowtowing to terrorists and such, as a lot of people in the GOP do, then attacking him for "defending terrorists" or other silly ideas makes sense. If you are dead certain he will "apologize" it makes sense to attack him for doing so. So its fine to attack the White House response before you even know what that response is because you are certain of what that response will contain. The problem results when this sort of behavior goes out of the controlled environment of Romney's head and enters the real world, where it promptly bursts into flames.

    That said, I always find it interesting when Conservatives try and claim that the key to a more stable Middle East is more bellicose rhetoric in English on Fox News. Oh well.

    1. "It's kind of strange that a candidate for the Presidency did this, . . ."

      Yet it reminds me so much of the Bush administration, all the jumping-to-conclusions, all the we-don't-need-evidence-because-we-already-know-what's-really-going-on, all the times we were left wondering whether some action was the result of Machiavellian manipulation or just plain incompetence. There were so many things that I initially assumed were based on a tissue of lies but may actually have been the consequences of people who really just weren't ready to make grown-up decisions.


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