Kevin Drum, who writes for the left-leaning Mother Jones, had a testy response to the edited version of my comments published in the American Prospect today. Normally I don’t pay much attention to partisan blogs, but Drum’s post has so many inaccuracies that it presents a real teaching moment. Even Drum might learn something. (Ok, I’m joking there.)
First, in Drum’s defense, he’s responding to the edited version of the comments I sent to Jamelle Bouie late last night that were published today in Bouie’s blog post at the American Prospect. As I noted in my earlier post today, readers of Bouie’s article may come away with a slightly misleading impression of what I said to him in those comments. That appears to be the case with Drum – he is responding to the excerpts Bouie published, and not my full post here. Still, it is worth quoting him in full if for no other reason to illustrate how partisan pundits think. After quoting my excerpt in Bouie’s piece, Drum explodes (in an article titled “Today’s Adventures in Pseudo Profundity”!): “Why do people say stuff like this? Of course the electorate is highly polarized. Of course 70% of voters have already made up their minds. So what? Campaign ads aren’t aimed at these people. They’re aimed at the small segment of the population that’s persuadable, just like every advertisement for every product in history. That’s not even Political Science 101. It’s more like junior high school level stuff.
Please, let’s all stop spouting this nonsense as if it were something profound. It’s not. All mass advertising is mostly wasted because the vast majority of the audience has no interest in the product for one reason or another. But some of the audience does. That’s the target. The fact that the target is far, far less than 100% of the viewers is news to no one.”
Let’s start with the most obvious error, and go from there. First, despite Drum’s assertion, it is NOT obvious that the electorate is highly polarized. In fact, all the evidence suggests just the opposite – the electorate is not highly polarized at all. I’ve covered the data on this before, so I trust I need not go into it again. The idea that Americans are deeply divided, of course, is a recurring meme from partisan bloggers, so Drum’s mistake puts him in good company. But it’s a mistake nonetheless. The truth is that most Americans do not share Drum’s extreme partisan leanings – or that of those occupying the extreme right wing either.
Second, Drum would have us believe that the 30% or so of voters yet to make up their minds are “persuadable” via, presumably, campaign ads such as the ones the Obama campaign are running about Bain. (Note that contrary to Drum’s impression, my comments to Bouie re: the 70% referred to the impact of Bain as an issue, broadly defined, not to a specific campaign ad, but never mind.) Alas, there’s not much evidence that this is true either. While a small proportion of voters may be genuinely undecided, most of the remaining 30% lean in one partisan direction or the other and that lean will likely determine how they vote – and how they react to the Bain controversy (if they bother to pay attention to it this early in the campaign). And for those who are truly persuadable, it’s almost certainly the case that the state of the economy, as captured in broad-gauged measures such as unemployment and GDP growth, will be more influential than the debate over Mitt’s tenure at Bain.
Third, Drum overstates the impact of any single campaign advertisement. The reality is that the impact of campaign ads is rather short-lived, and that in the high-information environment characteristic of presidential campaigns, when voters will be saturated with advertisements from both sides, no single advertisement is likely to carry the day. The impact of the Bain controversy will almost certainly be drowned out by the barrage of events and related campaign advertising to come.
My point here is not to disparage Drum’s partisan leanings. He clearly thinks electing Mitt would be bad for the country, and he could be right. But that’s no excuse for exaggerating the likely influence of the Bain controversy, or for simply misstating some pretty fundamental political facts. Let me be clear. I’m sympathetic to Drum’s plight – the guy he wants to win is facing stiff headwinds in the form of a stubbornly weak economy. Given this weak fundamental, it’s clear that Drum wants – desperately wants – to believe that the Bain controversy is going to be a turning point in this campaign. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Alas, the historical evidence suggests this isn’t likely to be the case no matter how much Drum and his fellow partisans cite each other as evidence that the Bain controversy is, in fact, a turning point. It just isn’t.
Sorry, Kevin. Bain’s not going to swing this election to Obama. But let’s focus on the positive: you are ready for junior high!