Tag Archives: Game Change

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.

Game Change? Alas, Not So Much

Amid much anticipation, and not a little controversy, the HBO docudrama Game Change aired last night. Based loosely on the book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book), the movie focuses on Sarah Palin’s role in John McCain’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. Like Palin herself, the movie has provoked a rather polarized reaction, based in part on advance screenings.  Critics (including Palin although it’s not clear to me she has watched it) trashed the movie as another liberal smear job on the former mayor and Alaskan governor. Some of Palin’s harshest critics, on the other hand, believe Julianne Moore portrays Palin far too sympathetically.  For what it is worth (and I don’t think it’s worth much) I thought that rather than smearing or favoring Palin, the movie’s dominant frame is one of soft sexism that one still finds permeating national media coverage of women politicians more generally. That’s because the primary emotion most nonpartisan viewers will feel after seeing Game Change, I think, is pity toward the Palin character.  She comes across as a well-meaning but unprepared politician thrown into the consultant-infested deep waters of national politics. At one point it is suggested that Palin is on the verge of an emotional (hysterical?) breakdown, but she is rescued by the sympathetic support offered by McCain campaign strategist Steven Schmidt (portrayed by Woody Harrelson) who cuts back her workload and simplifies her strategy leading up to her much anticipated debate with Joe “O’biden” Biden.  Never mind that the strategy Palin used in debating Biden – a key moment in the film – almost exactly reprised the filibuster/stay on message/ignore-the-question debate tactics she employed in previous campaigns in Alaska. The Game Change audience is led to believe that Schmidt rescued poor Palin from certain disaster.

I will leave it to others to parse the meaning of Game Change, and what it reveals – or doesn’t – about Palin the politician and the person.  (Full disclosure: I watched much of the movie while reading a dull political science book, so I may have missed its true import.)  Rather than rely on Hollywood, I think better insights into Palin as politician come from reading some of the 25,000 heavily redacted emails covering her time as Alaska governor from December 2006 through Sept. 30, 2008, a period ending shortly after she accepted McCain’s offer to run as Vice President.  I’ve read only a smattering of these, but the ones I have scanned reveal that rather than someone to be pitied, Palin is instead a savvy politician who actively sought to shape media coverage and her relationship with other politicians in ways that boosted her political standing and her policy goals. In short, she comes across like a lot of politicians.

Perhaps her most controversial act as Governor was to work with Democrats to push through legislation increasing taxes on oil companies, a delicate legislative balancing act that often put her at odds with not just the oil companies but also her own Republican Party members. To give you a flavor of Palin at work, here she is  emailing aides regarding mediation efforts with stakeholders in the gas line revenue  controversy.

from: Gov. Sarah Palin
to: Balash, Joseph, Irwin, Tom E (DNR) [tom.irwin@alaska.gov], Joseph R Batash (GOV), Marty Rutherford , Pat Galvin
cc: Gov. Sarah Palin

“Sheeesh- I heard her comment tonight also. I met with Exxon the other day, then with CP, we all (naturally) agree that everyone will come to the table with TC-Ak AFTER TC is licensed. Everyone agrees BP will be there too. Mulva said he looks forward to me “bringing them all together” – he pointed to my conf table and we agreed we’d all be around that table at the appropriate time (I said that would be after the legislature votes for AGIA/TC). So… there you have the “mediation” vehicle. Lesil need not call for it – we’re on it. We don’t need to be told what to do on that front.

Sent from my BlackBerry device from Cellular One”

In the midst of these negotiations, however, she also accepts her aides’ advice to forward positive press coverage of her gas line deal mediation efforts to the McCain campaign organization, as part of an active effort to get her considered as a potential running mate.  This and other emails are hardly the picture of a political neophyte cast into the den of political consultants and left to fend for herself.  Hate her or love her, the evidence from emails suggest that Palin was an ambitious and adroit political operator.  The Moore portrayal only begins to hint at this dimension of Palin’s character near the end of the movie.

Portrayals of Palin aside, probably the most misleading aspect of Game Change is the movie’s title, which implies that Palin’s selection had a significant impact on the outcome of the 2008 presidential campaign. Longtime readers will recall that I started this blog during the 2008 presidential campaign, and I posted more than one comment regarding Palin’s extraordinary capacity to draw boisterous, supportive crowds during the waning days of that process. But, contrary to what the movie implies, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of her candidacy on the 2008 race. Consider, as evidence, the 2008 presidential exit poll. As the table below indicates, only 7% of voters surveyed in the presidential exit poll said that Palin’s selection was the “most important factor” in their vote for President, and they went for Obama by 52% to 47% for McCain. Note that this split is almost identical to the overall split in the popular vote between the two candidates; Obama beat McCain by about 52.9%-45.6%.

However, McCain actually won a majority of those 33% of voters who said the Palin pick was an “important factor.”  On the other hand, fully 33% of respondents said Palin’s pick was not a factor at all – and they went much more strongly for Obama, at 65%-33%, over McCain.

Palin’s Pick Was…. Voted for Obama For McCain Other/Didn’t Answer
Most Important Factor (7%) 52% 47% 1%
Important Factor (33%) 47% 52% 1%
Minor Factor (20%) 33% 66% 1%
Not A Factor (33%) 65% 33% 2%

Put another way, of the 60% of voters who said the Palin pick influenced their vote in any degree, from “most important” to playing a “minor” role, McCain easily beat Obama, 56%-43%.   In short, if exit polls are to be believed, the Palin pick may have helped McCain at the margins.

Of course, exit polls don’t allow us to evaluate the Palin pick while controlling for other factors, such as voters’ ideological and partisan predispositions. Political scientists who have sought to estimate the impact of the Palin pick while controlling for these and other factors, and using other data such as the American National Election Studies, have generally found that her selection had a slight negative influence on McCain’s support. Thus, Elis, Hillygus and Nie suggest the Palin choice cost McCain 1.6% in his overall popular support. Jonathan Knuckey comes to a similar conclusion, finding that “the effect of evaluations of Palin on vote choice was heavily conditioned by party identification”, with Palin helping to mobilize the Republican base for McCain, but probably costing him support among independents and swing voters.

Whether the impact on McCain’s chances was positive or negative, Palin’s selection was, and remains, controversial.  But while it was not inconsequential in the 2008 race (particularly compared to the lack of impact of most V.P. picks on previous presidential elections), given Obama’s final margin of victory Palin’s selection can hardly be characterized as a “game changer.”

But then, why let the facts get in the way of a great story?  It’s Hollywood, after all. When it comes to understanding Palin as politician, however, that’s more the pity