If you are an active follower of twitter feeds, political blogs and the Sunday talk shows, you could be excused for thinking the presidential election, for all intents and purposes, ended this weekend, with revelations regarding Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. According to the pundits, the disclosure that Romney’s name remained on Bain documents for several years after he allegedly cut all ties with the company in 1999 to run the U.S. Olympic hosting effort has apparently boxed Mitt in, politically speaking. He’s either lying when he says he severed all ties with Bain in 1999, in which case he is culpable for what Bain did in later years, including contributing to the outsourcing of U.S. jobs, or he misrepresented his true status in legal filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission and was a figurehead to boot. In either case, it is not good news for the Mittster. To top it off, the Obama campaign immediately launched the following ad, which various pundits have described as the “most devastating ad” of the campaign season.
If the pundits are to be believed, then, the cumulative effect of this weekend’s feeding frenzy is that Mitt has been Swiftboated, but without the falsehoods, as Atlantic columnist and former Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallow puts it. The Bain disclosures have effectively turned Romney’s purported strengths – his business acumen – into his Achilles Heel, just as the Swiftboat ads turned Kerry’s war service into a liability.
Fallows is right: the Bain disclosures are likely to have the same impact on this race as did the Swiftboat ads in 2004. That is to say – they will have almost no impact at all. This is the point I made to Jamelle Bouille in his piece today for the left-leaning American Prospect. I want to amplify my remarks to Jamelle, in part to clarify one of his statements which some might read as reflecting my thinking. In the American Prospect piece, Jamelle writes: “The important thing to remember is the electorate is highly polarized, and most voters have already made their choice. Dickinson explains, ‘Keep in mind that 70 percent or so of voters have already made up their mind regarding who they will support, and most people, including independents, aren’t paying much attention to this story anyway.’”
Note that I do NOT believe the electorate is highly polarized, at least not in an ideological sense. In a race in which voters have but two choices, of course, they are going to appear to be polarized. But, to paraphrase Morris Fiorina’s observation in his very useful book Culture Wars?, we should not mistake a closely divided electorate for a deeply divided one. Most Americans situate themselves somewhere closer to the center-right of the ideological spectrum, and have for some time.
My larger point, however, is that there’s no reason to believe that the Bain disclosures are going to change the retrospective nature of this election which will largely be a referendum on the incumbent President. That is, for most voters whose mind is not made up, the key issue come November will be how they evaluate President Obama’s handling of the economy. This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, one that – this week’s media firestorm notwithstanding – will dwarf debate over Romney’s did-he or didn’t-he still run Bain question? Put another way, our forecast models won’t be much more accurate by including a variable that measures public reaction to the Bain controversy. In contrast, a change in GDP quarterly growth of 1% or more is likely to be very consequential.
Part of the reason pundits overstate Bain’s significance is that they operate in a media echo chamber in which the impact of a very small number of highly partisan voices is amplified by the rise of social networks. Media pundits convince themselves that because they think something is important – and it must be because all the Twitter feeds are discussing it – the general public must think it is important as well. Alas, almost four months before the election, most people are not as infatuated with this inside baseball talk as the pundits might think. As I wrote to Jamelle, “This is one of these classic media echo stories where the combination of twitter feeds, Sunday talk shows, and partisan blogs all convince each other that they have just witnessed a game changing moment, without bothering to realize that they are all referencing each other. By definition, this makes it a news event – but not one that matters very much in the long run. This may have a short-term impact on polls, but at this point polls are best interpreted as people responding in terms of who is getting the best of the news coverage – not in terms of who they are likely to vote for. In the end, the election will still turn on the fundamentals that always drive election outcomes – and the biggest one will be the state of the economy.”
But what about that “devastating” ad? Hasn’t Romney been Swiftboated? Again, in the retelling, the Swiftboat ads have morphed into a game-changing event that cost Kerry almost certain election (just as the Willie Horton ad undercut Michael Dukakis’ chances in 1988!) The reality is that Kerry actually outperformed our forecast models, doing better in the 2004 election than most political scientists predicted based on the fundamentals alone. (Try this thought experiment. Did you see the Swiftboat ad? If so, did it make you change your vote? I didn’t think so.) A look at national polls during the time the Swift Boat ads ran, moreover, suggests that the ads – by themselves – had minimal effect on Kerry’s national support. (It is possible that they were more influential in key swing states, but I don’t have polling data to address this issue.) More generally, we don’t find much support indicating that campaign ads have long-lasting persuasive effects, particularly in a high-information campaign in which both candidates are going to saturate the air waves with hundreds of campaign messages. The singing Romney ad, thankfully, won’t be the last thing we see on this topic from either side.
The bottom line is that how most voters respond to the Bain controversy will be determined by their pre-existing partisan attachments and ideological predispositions. It isn’t likely to have nearly the persuasive impact that pundits fervently wish it will. Now, in a very close election – and all indications are that this election will be close – pundits can point to almost any event, issue, campaign ad or other fact as THE deciding influence on the outcome. If Romney loses by half a percentage point come November, political wags will undoubtedly cite this weekend and Bain as the point at which it all unraveled. Even then, however, I would argue that when it comes to explaining the final vote, the marginal impact of the voters’ perceptions regarding the economy will be much bigger than attitudes toward Bain.
Does Bain matter at all, then? I think Bouille comes closer to the truth when he writes, “The attack on Bain Capital—and in particular, the perception that Romney is hiding something—could serve to cement negative perceptions of the candidate [Italics added]. It’s not that voters will necessarily understand the substance of the Bain Capital attacks, but they will begin to perceive Romney as an unscrupulous banker who evades responsibility and abuses the rules—a picture that reminds voters of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and fits well with the rhetoric used by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.” In short, if voters’ are looking for a reason to vote their predisposition to support Obama and oppose Romney, Bain provides plenty of fodder. But it’s not going to persuade very many Romney supporters to change their vote and back the President. And it’s not likely to be the major reason why undecided voters rally to one candidate or the other. But you wouldn’t know it by listening to the pundits this weekend.