Beating the Drum On Bain

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!


  1. I’ve spoken with at least one political operative who says that the widely-reported 70% number is an underestimate of about 25%. And I’ve had discussions with a separate political scientist/philosopher that these attacks, as you say, are for framing. The agreement among them (and me) if that it’s not about winning over the 5% as much as it is about convincing your voters to come out and the other guy’s voters to stay home. In essence, these attacks don’t move the needle, but they create the psychological frame – implicitly accepted by all – about how we view Romney. It’s a seed that will be reaped in October with signal terms (Cayman Islands, Venn diagram, CEO, etc).

    If I am a GOP voter, I’m more likely to stay home thanks to the feeling that he’s not really my guy. Likewise, an Occupy Dem is motivated to vote for fear of the same thing.

    In essence, goes the argument, the Bain dust-up is about molding turnout through emotional manipulation, not convincing people who, as you note, won’t be convinced anyway.

  2. What about Romney’s failure to make public more tax returns than he has to date? When he does (and I think he very reluctantly will), it should be interesting to see what is in there about his Olympics era Bain pay, as well as Cayman Islands and other off-shore income. Your thoughts?


  3. Vijay – That’s exactly right and, as you note, it’s the point I made in my post (and in many previous posts, as you will recall!) I will add one additional point – in gauging the impact of the Romney-as-vulture capitalist frame,we need to also remember that the Romney people are counter-framing Romney as a jobs creator and – more importantly – Obama as a job destroyer. The problem partisans like Drum continually have is that because they believe their side’s frame, and discount the other side’s (because they KNOW it is not true), they think their side’s campaign ads are devastating. But they are not. And while they may help, in theory, motivate voters, our studies indicate that the best way to get out the vote is to knock on doors.

  4. Marty,

    My personal preference, for what it is worth, is for Mitt to release his tax returns. Tactically, however, I can understand why he won’t. In terms of the impact on the campaign, I suspect his failure to release tax documents beyond the last two years will have almost no impact on the race. As for why Mitt doesn’t release them, I tend to believe it is because they would show that his effective tax rate was far below what many Americans pay,largely because Mitt, like most very wealthy people, made judicious use of tax breaks, off-shore accounts, and any other legal loophole available. And frankly, if I was him, I probably would have done the same thing – unless, perhaps, I was contemplating running for President! Does not releasing the documents make it appear that he’s hiding something? You bet it does! Does it mean he’s done something illegal? Knowing the Mittster, I’m very skeptical. Will he release more tax documents? If I’m the Mittster, I sit tight and weather the storm.

  5. On the other hand, Lindsey Graham’s recent comments could indicate that the GOP is laying the framing groundwork for Mitt to release more tax returns. Once we’re all agreed that we all would use every legal loophole available, even if it’s shady, unethical, and unfair to those poorer than us, we’re all ready to see that Mitt does it too. How well the frame sticks (and I’m sure polling will enable the Romney campaign to glean this info) is another issue.

    Regarding the preferred Romney narrative, Obama’s team is doing their Rove-best to make Romney’s claimed strengths – business leader, job creator – into weaknesses (the way passing the individual mandate naturally did that). That most recent ad everyone seems to love is linking the Bain frame with the job creator claims and basically saying, “WTF is Romney saying?”

    Side note: unless you’re absolutely certain you can sing on key or perform your instrument, don’t. Even if you’re sure, you probably shouldn’t anyway.

  6. Nick – I’ll need to research the movie first before commenting. It hasn’t reached Middlebury’s famous Marquis multiplex yet, has it?

  7. Prof. Dickinson:

    You’ve made some strong points here and generally speaking I think you have the better of this argument. I am, however, hesitant to fully embrace your point about these issues being largely irrelevant for one reason: the importance of individual states to Obama’s reelection. These ads are airing in swing states and are presumably aimed at people who we would probably call “Reagan Democrats” in states like Ohio, Virginia, etc. These are the people that Kennedy targeted when he ran similar ads against Romney during their Senate contest.

    So here’s my question: do you think that these ads were largely irrelevant to Kennedy’s victory and if you think they had some effect then, why shouldn’t we expect them to have some effect among similar constituencies now?

  8. Justin,

    Three quick points about ads, and a more general point about swing states, in response:

    1. Most research suggests the impact of campaign ads is short-lived – maybe two weeks at most before viewers forget the contents of the ad.

    2. In a campaign that is awash in ads, no single ad, or series of ads, is likely to make the difference in an election, particularly when voters have alternative sources by which to gauge each candidate. Keep in mind that both sides are framing the election as best they can, and voters are hearing both frames.

    3. The content of ads is endogenous to the broader fundamentals driving the campaign – that is, you can only “define” a candidate if it is consistent with reality, as perceived by the voters. Hence ads don’t change minds so much as active predispositions.

    Finally, although the media – and candidates – are going to focus a huge amount of time on swing states, the variables that influence the outcome in those states are the same ones that will determine the overall national vote, for the most part. Put another way, national tides influence swing state outcomes, so if we can understand what drives those national results, history suggests we can predict the election winner.

  9. Thanks for the response. Each of these points is interesting but I want to focus on the final two.

    It is clear that no single ad will decide this election. If, as you say, the ad effect is important only insofar as it activates predispositions that exist prior to the ads themselves, doesn’t this ad campaign have the potential to be particularly damaging to the Romney campaign?

    If the Obama team can turn “Romney as vulture capitalist” into the “active predisposition” among voters in de-industrialized geographies each time they hear Romney tout his business experience then your point about economic fundamentals become a bit more muddy. In other words, these ads become an attempt to implicate Romney in the economic downturn that has plagued important swing state regions.

    Maybe this logic is too convoluted and complicated. It seems to me, however, that while the effect of this one ad will be limited, the cumulative effect of this ad (and ads like it) could be meaningful.

  10. Justin,

    You are absolutely correct re: the intended effect of the ads: to portray Romney as a vulture capitalist and thus implicate him somehow in the economic downturn. That is clearly the frame that Obama is going to put on this campaign,and I think it is an effective one, given the material they have to work with.

    What you are forgetting is that these Reagan Democrats – middle-to-lower income workers who are feeling the brunt of the recession – are also hearing another “frame”: that Obama’s “big spending, big government” ways have set record deficits while at the same time failing to bring down unemployment (and let’s not get started on Obamacare!). So voters consider these competing frames in the context of what they see and hear about the actual state of the economy. How are they going to respond to these frames? For the most part, in terms of their prior dispositions. My point here is not to say that the ads, collectively, don’t matter. They do – but not in a way that will advantage one candidate more than the other, given the fundamentals. The problem that partisans of both sides have is that when they see their own candidate’s ad, they say, “Wow, what a devastating indictment of the other guy! This is powerful stuff!” But when they see the other guy’s ad, they dismiss it out of hand as propaganda. This is why we see little independent impact on the vote from campaign ads, despite what the daily media coverage would have us believe.

    Does this make sense?

  11. Nick – Note that Vermont’s own Senator Patrick Leahy purportedly has a starring role – so I think it will probably be a plus for Democrats!

  12. Vijay – two quick cautionary responses: I don’t think the Republican Party elders like Graham have any influence over Mitt’s campaign. Second, all loopholes advantage some of the others – like many Americans, I benefit from two big one: child tax exemptions and the mortgage deduction. Is it fair? Not to those who have no children and don’t own homes! Now, whether taking advantage of loopholes is politically advisable is a different, and perhaps more important question.

  13. Yes, that makes perfect sense and I totally agree. For observers like me (and probably you) the framing battle is one of the more interesting public aspects of the campaign. I also agree with your point about partisanship being the lens through which observers weigh and judge ads.

    I simply wanted to make the point that the importance of the Bain/tax attack and, therefore, the value of the ad is that it implicates Romney in the fundamentals which are clearly not good.

    These ads are a way of turning Bain and therefore Romney into the culprit for the economic maladies plaguing politically vital areas of the country. If these areas of the country are inhabited by people who are already predisposed to be skeptical or hostile toward of moneyed interests and financial Masters of the Universe – and the Obama team is betting that they are – then these ads have the capacity to tap that predisposition.

    Now maybe the “Obama is a tax and spend liberal” predisposition/frame is stronger and can therefore negate the influence of this line of attack. I just think that if successful, these ads may work against the typical “fundamentals” argument by allowing Obama to deflect some of the punishment that he might otherwise have incurred for a crappy economy.

  14. Justin – Excellent summary, one with which I am in complete agreement. I would note, however (and at the risk of repeating myself), that the particular frame that Obama is choosing – that Romney as vulture capitalist bears responsibility for the current economic crisis – is based on a specific fundamental: the bad state of the economy during Obama’s first term. To use a favored social science word, the strategy is “endogeneous” to the economic context; Obama chose it because the economy sucks and he needs to explain why. It is pretty much the best strategy he could use. Our forecast models assume that both sides choose the best frame they can, given the particular fundamentals. The question becomes, as you note, is how many voters Obama’s frame persuades to vote for him that otherwise were likely to vote for Romney, keeping in mind that Romney is spinning his own frame. Our general answer is: “Not many”. Of course, Obama’s frame may also help to active voters who otherwise may not have voted. The bottom line is that campaigns matter, but because both sides realize this, the campaign may not be as consequential in terms of advantaging one side or the other as much as the media focus on controversies, such as Bain, would have one believe.

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