Tag Archives: election fundamentals

A Turning Point In The Election?

The reaction – or lack thereof – among voters to the Bain controversy once again illustrates an important distinction between how partisan pundits (you know to whom I’m referring) and political scientists analyze what drives election results.  As the controversy over when and to what degree Romney severed his connection with Bain dominated the news, Romney’s partisan critics were convinced that the story would negatively impact Mitt’s electoral support.  The Daily Dish’s Andrew Sullivan, tweeting the link to his longer analysis, wondered: “The GOP’s current candidate is an obvious perjurer and thereby a felon. How long will it take before this sinks in?”  Jonathan Cohn, citing the Obama campaign’s “devastating ad” [based on the Bain controversy], concluded that “substantively speaking, this controversy is largely telling us something we already knew: That Romney helped develop and then employed business practices that generated large profits for investors, made companies more efficient, and frequently led to layoffs.”  TPM’s Josh Marshall confidently opined “We can spin these out forever. But beyond all the specific accusations, they’re painting a picture that makes Romney look ridiculous, like a joke. They’re making Romney look stupid and powerless on the front where he believes he’s one of the standouts of his generation. And that’s plain lethal for a presidential candidate. But how does it come into play? Simple. Mitt Romney has two claims on the presidency: successful governor of major state and captain of industry. He’s largely written off the first by disavowing a genuine and perhaps far-reaching accomplishment: health care reform. Which leaves him with Bain Capital.”

Regular readers of these partisan blogs could be excused for expecting that the fallout from Bain would have a significant effect on Romney’s standing in the polls. (I trust I need not give you a Kevin Drum quote?) And, in fact, polls indicate the Bain controversy had some negative impact on whether voters viewed Romney’s business record as a reason to vote for him. But while Romney’s critics were touting this finding, they were generally ignoring the bigger polling picture, which is that the Bain controversy did not seem to affect the candidates’ relative standing in the national polls at all, much as I suspected it wouldn’t. Indeed – and I wouldn’t make too much of  this given the rampant polling fluctuations to date – the Real Clear Politics aggregate poll suggests that Mitt may have gained ground during the time of the Bain/income tax debate.

The fact that potential voters could change their attitude toward the relative worth of Mitt’s business experience, but not whether they are likely to vote for him drives home a point I’ve made repeatedly, but one which partisan pundits overlook: this election will be largely a referendum on President Obama’s handling of the economy. For most undecided voters, the choice whether to vote for Romney will turn less on his Bain record, or how far back he goes in releasing tax forms, and more on Obama’s economic record.

In that vein, the topic of this Wall St. Journal story is likely to have a bigger impact on the November election than are any of Mitt’s tax documents.  Less than a week before the first estimate of second quarter GDP growth figures are released this Friday, a survey of economists indicates that they believe the numbers will show worse growth – close to 1.2% – than the 1.9% in the previous quarter, and the slowest rate of growth since the first quarter of 2011.

As I’ve discussed previously,  GDP growth is an important variable in many of the economy-driven econometric presidential forecast models (see here and here and here).  If these GDP numbers hold in the less-than-1.5% growth range, most of those models suggest Obama will get less than a 50% share of the two-party vote come November, although how much less varies by model – and by what the third quarter GDP number – and the final number before the election – shows. Of course these models are not foolproof, and there is always the chance that the election will turn on some idiosyncratic factor that may prove determinative.  Karl Rove has always insisted that the last minute release of court papers documenting George W. Bush’s DUI arrest on the eve of the 2000 presidential election cost Bush close to 2% of the popular vote through a combination of reduced turnout and the loss of some independents to Gore, as well four states in the Electoral College. Had the arrest not been publicized, he argues, Florida would not have mattered.  Whether Rove is correct or not, I have said repeatedly that in a close election there is room for an “October surprise” to make a difference.

But it is far more likely, I think, that the outcome will turn on perceptions regarding the state of the economy, as measured by GDP growth, among other factors.  Which makes Friday’s release of the first estimate of the second quarter GDP figure potentially far more important than Mitt’s tax returns. And if that number suggests growth is slowing, and the third quarter GDP number that will come out in October shows even slower growth, the President may have to pin his reelection hopes on an October surprise – and a very big one, at that.  This is not, of course, what partisan pundits will have you believe.  But it is what the historical record suggests to be true.

4:10 P.M.  Consistent with some of my earlier posts, Rasmussen finds that among undecided voters, only 13% are paying attention to the campaign – another reason why  Bain and the tax documents simply aren’t having the impact partisan pundits had predicted.

The Bain of Mitt’s Campaign?

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.