Thursday, October 25, 2012

Catch of the Day

Ed Kilgore reads a dispatch from ace Nevada reporter Jon Ralston about why Mitt Romney is actively contesting Nevada, and concludes:

So Ralston asks a simple question and comes up with a bunch of possible answers: maybe it’s about internal polls, or maybe it’s about downballot races, or maybe it’s a thank-you note to Sheldon Adelson or maybe it’s just because they have the money so why not spend it?

Truth be told, most campaigns are rolling balls of madness just beneath the surface.
Yup, and a terribly important insight. This is actually why I put so much emphasis on the likelihood that politicians will copy strategies and tactics from winning campaigns -- which is very different from copying winning strategies and tactics (that is, those things that actually made a difference). Oh, there are certainly some electioneering techniques which are carefully tested and evaluated. But as near as I can tell, lots and lots and lots of what politicians and operatives do is based on folk wisdom. Or organizational inertia. Or organizational chaos. Or organizational cross-incentives (such as when whoever was in charge of Nevada may have personal incentives for the campaign to divert resources there, regardless of whether it maximizes Romney's chances of winning). All of which might be going on at the same time.

See, for example, a nice Greg Koger post about the conflicts between party networks, candidates, and formal party organizations.

One of the implications of all of this is that reporters who are inclined to blame campaign in-fighting or other internal campaign issues for a loss can always find plenty of examples, because both winning and losing campaigns have plenty of internal campaign conflict. After all, internal conflict is built in to every large organization, but if you think about presidential campaigns in particular, you realize that they'll have more htan their share.

All of which is to say: nice catch!


  1. According to the 2004 Gallup poll on religion, Nevada is the third most Mormon state, with 9% Mormons, equal to Wyoming and behind only Utah (67%) and Idaho (21%). So perhaps the Romney campaign expects a huge Mormon turnout and a nearly unanimous Mormon vote to help push them over the top in Nevada. Nevada is the only swing state with a substantial Mormon population.

    1. The problem with this is that the Mormons in Nevada voted heavily for McCain and yet Obama won the state easily. An even higher Mormon turnout for Romney could only help him slightly. In any event, presumably any increased Mormon support for Romney would show up in the polls--why would Mormons lie and say they're not voting for Romney? Why would they give answers that could make them get classified by the pollsters as "unlikely voters"?

  2. I was always fond of the quote Fenno got from a House-level campaign operative in Homestyle:

    "70% of the campaign money we spend is wasted. We just don't know which 70%."

    This is double true at the presidential level, where there is tons of money to literally just throw at the wall and see what sticks.


  3. Great point, but t would have been great if someone cited a "Sign War" update in order to prove a political argument before November 6th. There's a great part of the documentary about Clinton's '92 run "The War Room" where one staffer states the dire straights of the campaign in a large meeting during the DNC: "Brown came out with new signs last night, and their letters are bigger than ours, so they look better. And we have two kinds of signs, long thin ones and rectangular ones. We have a mixed message out on the floor!"

    If anyone is interested Obama is dominating the bumper sticker and lawn sign contest in Minnesota.

    1. On a recent trip to the Inland Empire I saw one Romney sign. Four years ago, I saw dozens maybe more McCain signs. My conclusion? Obama is going to win California.

  4. I was a cog in the wheel of the Kerry campaign for 2 weeks in 2004 in Florida. Campaigns are organizations that go from virtually nothing to thousands, tens of thousands of people in a few months. It's impossible for them not have a lot of waste and illogic going on.

  5. P.S. I then went on to run for local office myself and won, but spending money on something was generally just a huge guess as to whether a decision would end up a good one or a bad one.

    I could tell that my opponent was spending money badly though, which was good because he had a lot more than me.

  6. Hey, I have a whole dissertation on this topic. I interviewed campaign operatives (57 of of them, many who'd worked on 5 or more Presidentials and countless other races) and, although that's not what I was looking for, I was really struck by how emphatically they all told me that most of the time there's really no way to know whether something is going to "work" or not (in large part because so many factors outside campaigns' control influence election outcomes). Of course, they were also largely convinced that they know how to run good campaigns anyway. But what they said was exactly what you're saying: that all that uncertainty leads to mostly replicating standard strategies.

    There's a description of my dissertation here if anyone's interested: (The interviews are just a part of it.)


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