Sunday, August 19, 2012

Undermining the Political Conventional Wisdom

Although I find most political horse-race coverage boring and useless, this article caught my eye:
Obama's Lead Over Romney Grows Despite Voter Pessimism
A couple of quick thoughts about this piece:

• It's August. As the Bush campaign famously pointed out in 2004, nobody rolls out anything important in August, because nobody is paying attention. Poll numbers this far out are a particularly pointless exercise, except to provide "news" for media outlets to write about. I'm sure this is what the Romney campaign is busy telling themselves - and they're probably right.

• What's interesting here is a result apparently contrary to conventional wisdom. In 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House with a famous slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." Scads of political research (by real political scientists!) has shown a strong correlation between the success of incumbents and the health of the economy (Reagan, 1980; Reagan, 1984; Clinton, 1992 & 1996; etc.). If Obama manages to win in spite of people's perceptions of a bad economy that would be, well, counterintuitive. It would overturn one of the basic understandings we have about American politics. And that's always interesting.

Of course, this is one poll in August, and the proof will be in the pudding in November. But if we assume there's something real happening here, I wonder if one or more of the following might be true:

1) Romney hasn't convinced anybody that he's going to be any different. Usually, the non-incumbent has an edge because they present something genuinely different from the incumbent, and people figure that something different would be better if things are bad now. Perhaps among "independent voters" - those who don't have a tribal identity with one of the parties - Romney hasn't convinced anybody that he's likely to do anything that different from Obama.

2) The American people have figured out that a President's ability to "fix" the economy is nearly non-existent. If this is the case, then a campaign predicated on "I will fix the economy" isn't going to win, at least among those crucial independent voters - if they have come to this conclusion.

3) Americans are tired of both parties. There is some evidence of partisan identity declining among Americans. If that's the case, voters might decide that the incumbent is a better choice simply for stability.

4) Elements in Romney's campaign, or in the GOP in general, on which they are in the minority are hurting the campaign. This would include gay marriage (see the Chik-fil-A controversy, which garnered a lot of attention shortly before this poll), foreign policy (Romney's disastrous foreign trip, anyone? John Bolton and the neocons?), and various other social tolerance and policy issues. It could be that these other things are scaring independents away with more force than his "I'll fix the economy" argument can attract them.

The campaign will, as always, come down to how many of each side's partisans turn out and how the small band of independents falls out (do they vote, and if so for whom).

Finally, politics is always a Rorshach test - we tend to see what we either want or expect. This is never more true than in presidential election years, in which everything is interpreted through the lens of one's own preferences. Since I don't particularly like political parties, I'm fond of 2) and 3) above - we'll have to wait to find out whether they are actually true or not.


  1. Interesting. And I tend to agree with most of what you write, except for the bit at the end of point #1 : "Romney hasn't convinced anybody that he's likely to do anything that different from Obama."

    I think most observers, well or not-so-well informed know that on some pretty big points Romney is indeed quite different than Obama. Romney's policies on taxes, health care (currently), defense, foreign policy, and social issues are decidedly different than Obama's. I think people get that. What he hasn't convinced anyone on (because he hasn't tried) is that his policies are different than Bush's (W).

    I think (hope!) that, to the extent, Americans are undecided in this election it is because they are not sold on Obama (still) AND they do not want to immediately return to the course charted by the previous Republican administration.

  2. On a number of issues, Romney clearly IS different than Obama - especially social issues (where he panders to the GOP base) and, somewhat more loosely, on foreign policy. The problem is that he's on the losing end of those issues, so there's no help there.

    On things economic, Romney has (so far as I can tell) mostly been lots of rhetoric. What would he really DO that's different from what Obama has done? (which, much to the disappointment of many Democrats, is much of what Bush did - including bail out the financial sector) Saying "I'm a CEO" over and over isn't a policy, it's a bio.

    On health care, Romney's problem is that he's running against himself. If he says he doesn't like "Obamacare", he has to repudiate his own record in Mass - which he sort of wants to do, but can't really, since it was pretty much successful there. He also hasn't said (that I've seen) what he would replace "Obamacare" with - there doesn't seem to be a "big idea" there.

    In general - and maybe this is just me ignoring the campaign as much as possible - I just can't see that the GOP has put anything substantive on the table. They are guaranteed the "anybody but Obama" vote, but the GOP could run a chipmunk and pull that same vote (roughly 35%, maybe 40%). Maybe they'll actually come up with an idea or two at the convention. We'll see.