The Media and the 2012 Election: Taking the “Fun” Out of the Fundamentals?

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Although the next presidential election is more than two years away, pundits are already trying to parse the meaning of polling data even though trial heats polls this far in advance of the election are practically worthless. The same goes for the recently concluded  Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll won by Rand Paul for the second year in a row – it likely tells us little about who the Republican nominee will be. No matter – the fact that these polls don’t tell us much won’t stop pundits from endlessly hyping them – after all, they have to write something! Before we wander too far down the garden path of media misinformation, however, it might do well to revisit some of the more glaring media misconceptions regarding the 2012 presidential election.  In a piece I have coming out in the American Political Science Association journal Perspectives on Politics I take aim at what I see as five enduring myths promulgated by many (but not all!) journalists in the aftermath of that contest.

1.  Obama won despite a poor economy that normally would have doomed the incumbent president.  In May, 2012, for example, the New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, echoing sentiment expressed by many pundits, wondered, “Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.”  In fact, however, most of the political science forecast models whose projections are based in part on the economic fundamentals had Obama a slight favorite to win the popular vote. In the aggregate, those models suggested Obama would garner a shade more than 50% of the two-party vote – he actually won bit more than 51%.

2. Obama’s victory owed much to the fact that voters found him more likable than Romney. A common conceit among journalists is that when it comes to attracting votes, candidate likability matters.  In a characteristic media assessment, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake argued, “Presidential elections are rarely won and lost on policy. Voters instead tend to choose the person they most want to be president based on who they like… Call it the empathy factor. And it matters. A lot.”  Actually, it is not clear likability matters much at all. Research by Morris Fiorina finds that in the 13 presidential elections from 1952 to 2000, the candidate with the net advantage in personal ratings won only seven times.

3. Obama’s early advertising blitz in key swing states effectively defined Romney as a heartless capitalist out of touch with the concerns of the middle class. One oft-cited example was the “brutally effective” series of ads run by the Priorities USA Super Pac in Ohio that depicted Romney “as a cold-hearted plutocrat, ruthless in his pursuit of profits and unaffected by the human toll of Bain’s brand of buying and selling companies”.  The best evidence, however, suggests these ads had limited staying power and likely didn’t change many votes in the long run.

4. Romney’s numerous campaign gaffes doomed his election chances. The most conspicuous, perhaps, was the infamous secret recording showing Romney condemning the 47% of voters who are “dependent on government,” but critics also cite his remarks favoring self-deportation by illegal immigrants, his failure to release individual tax returns, and his ill-timed criticism of Obama as sympathetic to anti-American interests in the Middle East in the aftermath of the attack on the Benghazi diplomatic compound, to name the most prominent. As one postmortem summarized, “Obama, weighed down by a poor economy, also needed help—and he often got it from Romney”. National and state level polling, however show very little variation in Obama’s lead over Romney throughout the campaign, with the exception of a short-lived post-convention bounce in Obama’s favor. In this vein, the “devastating” secret “47%” video recording appears to have had minimal effect on Romney’s polling support.

5. Obama’s vaunted ground game easily outclassed Romney’s poorly run get-out-the-vote efforts. This proved to be a staple of the numerous media post-mortems. However, it is not clear that the marginal effect of Obama’s allegedly superior ground game was big enough to change the outcome of the race. Indeed, overall turnout in 2012 was down from 2008, by 3.4%, as was Obama’s share of the vote, which dropped in that same period by 1.9%. Moreover, in five of the eight key battleground states where his get-out-the-vote efforts was concentrated, the drop off in Obama’s vote was greater than the decline in his overall national vote. In short, while it is possible that Obama’s vote share would have declined even more without his advanced voter outreach effort, it is hard to prove that he won because his ground game outperformed Romney’s.

So why did Obama win reelection in 2012, if not because of the factors frequently cited by many journalists and pundits?  For the same fundamental reasons that have largely dictated the outcomes of most presidential elections in the modern era.  Simply put, it is very difficult to defeat a sitting president in a time of economic growth – even tepid economic growth – particularly when that president’s party has been in control of the Oval Office for only one term prior to the election.  With the exception perhaps of media pundits, who depend on these campaign myths to attract and hold viewers, most of us should find this debunking reassuring. Although the horse-race perspective adopted by most journalists that focuses on candidate personality, campaign strategy and gaffes fits well with their need to attract and maintain a daily audience, it is not a narrative that is particularly flattering in its portrayal of the electorate. Fortunately, while entertaining, this media perspective is not very accurate. The overwhelming evidence is that voters, while perhaps not deeply informed regarding candidates and issues, do cast their vote based on their understanding of fundamentals, such as the state of the economy, as viewed through their own partisan predispositions. Viewed collectively, then, voters are quite rational. That is good news for the future of political science forecast models—and, more importantly, for the future of the US political system, and it something worth remembering as the media gears up for what promises to be another round of entertaining, if misleading, presidential campaign coverage.

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