Tag Archives: gaffes

Rumors of Mitt’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

I know. I know. “Where have you been?!”   I appreciate the email inquiries.  The short answer is I’ve been trapped in my office, fending off an onslaught of students.  Such is the life of a departmental chair at a nationally-ranked liberal arts college.   There’s been other distractions as well associated with the start of the semester (teaching a new election class!), and with giving election-year talks.   So that’s my excuse for the scarcity of posts.  I’ll try to do better now as academic-related activities begin to slow.

Meanwhile, in my blogging absence, the presidential campaign has, apparently, all but ended, with Romney suffering an ignominious defeat.  Or so the pundits tell me.  Evidently, Mitt’s political “death” was precipitated by several causes.  First there was the disastrous Republican convention, lowlighted by Clint Eastwood talking to a chair.   That was followed by the brilliantly orchestrated Democratic Convention, highlighted by the Big Dog’s mesmerizing recitation of his…er….Obama’s accomplishments.  Then Romney dug himself a deeper hole by seeming to politicize Libyan Ambassador Chris Steven’s death through some ill-timed remarks.   Romney dumped the final shovelful on his own political grave by accusing 47% of voters – many of them presumably his own supporters – of suffering from  an “entitlement ethos” that makes them overly dependent on government programs.

That last “devastating” gaffe was enough to convince several pundits  (see here and here) that  Romney had “lost the election.”   Forgive me if I’m not persuaded, and why I think you should not be either.   Not surprisingly, of course, the pundits who are certifying that the campaign is over are all Obama supporters.  More importantly, however, is that the polling data, while indicating that Obama may have gained a couple of percentage points over Romney compared to the pre-convention polls, still show this as a tight race.  The latest Pollster.com aggregate poll has Obama up by 3%, at 48.1%-45.1.%.  On the day before the Republican convention, Obama led by 1.4% in their composite poll.  At RealClearPolitics, Obama leads by 3.9%, 48.6%-44.7%.  He was up by 1.4% there before the conventions.  So there is evidence that the cumulative polling impact of the “devastating” period (for Romney) has cost him about 1.6%-2.5% in the polls.  That’s not insignificant, particularly in a tight race, but I don’t see this as proof of Romney’s demise either.

In assessing the claims that we have just witnessed a turning point in the campaign, I suggest keeping several factors in mind.  First, neither candidate got a huge convention boost as measured  by historical standards although my read of the polls is that the net polling advantage in convention bumps went to Obama.  Already, however, we see signs that some of that initial Democratic convention bump has dissipated.

Second , as John Sides argues, the shelf-life of presidential candidates’ rhetorical gaffes is surprisingly short.   Here’s John’s chart showing just how little previous rhetorical gaffes, such as Obama’s “You didn’t build that” remark, have actually moved the polling needle.  Romney may have gained a percentage point or two due to Obama’s statements, but it’s hard to say that permanently changed the race, particularly since Romney’s support dipped down again shortly after.

As I’ve discussed previously, these remarks tend not to have much impact largely because they are filtered through voters’ preexisting ideological beliefs. For this reason, I doubt Mitt’s 47% comment is the game changer that partisan pundits predict/hope it will be.  Remember, campaigns tend not to change votes so much as they activate latent predispositions among voters.  Yes, it’s possible this time will be different, and that Mitt’s remarks really are a turning point. But in the absence of evidence indicating why this time should be different, forgive me if I don’t take the partisan pundits’ words for it.

Already, the talking heads are debating just how bad a candidate Mitt is.  But, while he may not be the most well-liked guy, it is not clear to me that he is underperforming the economic fundamentals by all that much, if at all, based on current polls.  Much depends, of course, on which forecast model you believe.   As I’ve discussed in several previous posts, more than one forecast model has Obama winning this race by a very close margin.  Taken as a whole, as I’ll discuss in a future post, the forecast models see this race as a toss-up.  And that’s not far from where the aggregate polling has it right now. Remember, whenever a candidate appears to be losing, media pundits invariably point to failures in candidate strategy and/or in the candidates’ perceived personal shortcomings.   But that doesn’t mean that assessment is right.  And I don’t think it is right this time either.

No, Wait! This Is Really A Game-Changer! I Mean It!

Yesterday’s campaign events and related media coverage perfectly illustrate the points I’ve been making in my last several posts regarding the relative importance of campaigns and the underlying fundamentals as influences on presidential election outcomes.  First, in this New Yorker article, Jill Lepore buys into the standard media narrative which sees campaigns in terms of the daily duel of messaging, advertising and related tactics.  Not surprisingly, Lepore believes the recent efforts by the Obama campaign to highlight Romney’s Bain years and income tax statements have boxed Mitt in:  “On this turn, though, Romney has been outmaneuvered. His opponents in the primaries made it impossible for him to run on his record as governor of Massachusetts, and Obama’s campaign has made it very difficult for him to run on his record at Bain. All the same, the game is only just out of the box. Romney’s looking at an empty map and holding a fistful of pins. It’s his move.”

Of course, with four years of a stagnant economy, the real game is not “just out of the box” – but to Lepore, it’s all about the daily tactics, not the fundamentals.  And, in this context, Romney’s move was to create his own campaign ad based on an excerpt from Obama’s remarks at a campaign stop in Virginia. In his speech, Obama noted: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”  This, for Romney, was Obama’s Bain moment – the excerpted comments fed into the frame of Obama as an anti-business apologist for big government. Predictably, Romney’s tactic set off a war of words among campaign surrogates as both sides sought to explain what Obama really meant.  (Believe me, it is hilarious to be on twitter when one of these campaign food fights break out.  The distortions and silliness of the back-and-forth tweeting is something to behold.)

Perhaps sensing vulnerability on the issue (at least that’s what the pundits told me!), the Obama campaign finally came back with this rebuttal ad that is now running in so-called battleground states:

The fact that the Obama administration was forced to bring out the Big Gun himself – the President talking directly to the camera – set the pundits a-twitter once more about how he was on the defensive and whether the “you didn’t build that” comment was driving down his support in the polls.

I hope you see the point. In the span of less than a month we’ve seen at least two incidents that received heavy media focus and that were, in the eyes of some pundits, potentially “game changing” moments – Romney’s Bain experience/income tax and now Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment. For the media obsessed with the daily give-and-take on the campaign trail, these were important stories. Viewed in isolation from a partisan slant, it is easy to see why either one might change the campaign narrative. But for one of the dwindling number of voters who perhaps has not made up her mind, what you see is not a single ad or event, but instead dueling narratives composed of different ads that present contrasting takes on the these matters. That’s why any single ad, or related issue, usually isn’t a game-changing moment. Not surprisingly, despite – because of? – weeks of breathless media coverage,  the two candidates remain virtually deadlocked in national polls.

This is partly because, as this Pew survey indicates, most voters already feel like they know enough about the candidates to make up their mind.   Even on the controversial issues like Romney’s experience at Bain, or his income taxes, only about a third of respondents want more information. That’s true of independents as well.

When it comes to the President, Pew finds that “90% say they already pretty much know what they need to know about him; just 8% say they need to learn more.”  Given these numbers, there’s not a lot of maneuvering room for the candidates to change voters’ impressions, although Romney probably has a bit more potential flexibility– for better or for worse.

If the dueling ad campaigns are having any impact, it may be to drive the two candidates’ negative ratings higher. According to this MSNBC survey, Obama has his worst ratings in this category since he took office, with 32% of respondents rating their feelings toward him as “very negative.”  Romney’s “very negative” rating has also reached its high point to date, at 24%. When Pew asked,  “Has what you have you seen, read, or heard in the past couple weeks about [Mitt Romney or Barack Obama] and his campaign for president given you a more favorable impression of [either Romney or Obama]  or a less favorable impression”,  43%  chose “less favorable” for Romney, and 44% did so for Obama.  Faced with clashing negative ads, it appears that some voters are reacting by saying “a pox on both your houses.”

This likely won’t be the last time I caution you not overreact to the latest partisan-driven claim that we are experiencing a “game changing” moment.  Indeed, I could probably write a version of this post every day for the next three-plus months.  (You’d like that, wouldn’t you?)  But maybe the point is more easily grasped by considering previous “gaffes” that at least some pundits thought might cost either one of the candidates the election. Remember Romney declaring he likes to “fire” people, and that he pals around with plenty of NASCAR “owners”, and that his wife drives a few Cadillacs, and that we have no need for “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers”?  More recently, there was his initial description of the insurance mandate trigger as a “penalty”, not a “tax”. The Wall St. Journal editors were sure that would be a game changer.

Of course, Obama has had his own share of rhetorical gaffes, including his declaration that “the private sector is doing fine.”  Chris Cilliza wrote an entire column on how that would impact the election. Obama took heat as well for his description of “Polish death camps” (oops, there goes the Polish vote!)  And now the “you didn’t build that” declaration.

Yes, these were mistakes that were almost immediately incorporated into opposition campaign ads.  But did they change the course of the election?  I don’t think so.  And neither should you – no matter what the pundits declare to the contrary.