Conventional wisdom passes its sell-by date
The “center-right nation” myth was the biggest piece of conventional wisdom to pass its sell-by date on Tuesday night. Here are a few others:
Voters recoil from negative campaigning. No, they don’t. Barack Obama ran the most divisive and negative campaign in modern times. He paid no price for it.
His people knew exactly what they were doing. An interesting piece on Campaign 2012 strategy at the Washington Post quotes one Obama adviser saying “We turned a national election into a school-board race,” by which he means a deliberate decision to dump “the soaring speeches that clarified Obama’s candidacy four years ago” and get petty and vicious with Romney. It was all about sharp elbows and small issues, class envy and character assassination, launched with vigor during Romney’s vulnerable period following the Republican primary. The Romney campaign thought it could keep its powder dry and respond with vigor in the fall, but they made the mistake of overestimating the American electorate’s alleged revulsion to mean-spirited personal attacks.
As long as character assassination is subcontracted to campaign surrogates, and the media shows no interest in tracing the hit back to the candidate, it works great, and there is very little blowback. American voters know they’re supposed to loathe negative campaigning – that’s why Obama complained loudly and incessantly about it, even while he was practicing it, and even when he had to make risible complaints about how he’s always been an under-funded underdog in his political races.
American voters care deeply about clean campaigns. No, they don’t. Obama’s campaign finance operation was the most ethically dubious since… well, his 2008 campaign. Safeguards were cheerfully pulled from his campaign website, so mystery money could flood in. Big donations came from the kind of fat-cats and election-buying millionaires voters are supposed to view with deep suspicion. Even Jon Corzine, the epitome of the predatory Wall Street billionaire, was still bagging money for Obama. The electorate didn’t care all that much, and they aren’t terribly exercised about ballot integrity on a national level, although some state electorates take it more seriously. These things only become scandals when the media chooses to package them as such.
Elections are about big issues. Not always. The Obama team is doing a touchdown shuffle about their ability to reframe the ostensibly historic 2012 race as a mess of small-ball, superficial issues. The Romney team seems a bit shell-shocked that such “soft” personal details, including things like speaking style and (it must be said) skin color, counted for so much when polls indicated heavy interest in weighty issues. Some of that can be attributed to Romney’s inability to decisively shift the discussion to deep issues, but look: even Romney’s undisputed best moment of the campaign, his victory in the first presidential debate, was as much a victory of style as substance. Big things can be obscured behind very thin veils, with the proper amount of skill and media assistance.
The media landscape has been forever altered by talk radio and the Internet. No, it hasn’t, not to the degree many conservatives hoped. The big networks and newspapers still frame the debate. Alternative media can be very powerful, and it has some remarkable successes to its credit, but it hasn’t completely invalidated the mainstream media’s ability to ignore a story to death.
Rich Noyes at Fox News has an interesting assessment of how media bias helped Obama across the finish line: Romney “gaffe” stories were whipped up and propagated with remarkable vigor – 86 percent negative coverage of Romney’s European trip, 42 major network stories in three days about the “47 percent” video. Those surprised by Obama’s victory might be equally surprised to learn just how under-reported his “gaffes” were by comparison, with only a few sporadic same-day mentions of “the private sector is doing fine” and four days without a single report about “you didn’t build that.”
One-sided fact checking and the relentless media determination to protect Obama from the Benghazi debacle -which marched right onto the stage during the second presidential debate – followed a similar pattern. A large number of swing-state voters were simply living in a different information universe than news junkies, and that’s a testament to the enduring power of the mainstream press. If anything, they seem to have absorbed a few defensive lessons about taking the bait from alternative media after the 2004 election.
Independent voters are the key to winning elections. No, they’re not. Romney had big leads with “independents,” but they’ve largely lost their power as a decisive political force. It didn’t help that overall turnout was actually down from 2008 by a considerable margin – better than 10 million votes as of Wednesday morning, although continuing counts will narrow the gap. This was a fairly hard-core base-turnout election, in which a lot of “independents” turned out to be modestly disaffected Democrats who like to identify themselves as independent because it makes them appear open-minded. A smaller share of them were modestly disaffected Republicans who feel the same way. It would be a mistake to ignore appeals to middle-of-the-road types altogether – a loss of decisive influence doesn’t mean they’re insignificant – but it’s probably safe to say they respond best to passionate, well-crafted and well-delivered appeals that also motivate the base, in this strongly divided nation.
It’s the economy, stupid. It might have been true in 1992, but it’s a bitter jest today. Obama vaulted over standards that would have annihilated any other incumbent, according to expired conventional wisdom. 7 percent unemployment is no longer a line of doom. A record of stagnant growth, huge deficit spending, reduced median income, and increased costs of living is not fatal, not without a media narrative that ties them to the President. Exit polls in 2012 showed that more voters actually still blame George Bush for the current economy. Concerns about the economy tend to reflect political tribal loyalty, not a dispassionate analysis of empirical data, or even the general sensibility that leads to “right track – wrong track” numbers in the polls. It will be interesting to clock how fast all those standards are raised when the next Republican president runs for re-election.
Voters demand specifics. No, they demand promises. They’re quite happy to do without specifics, evidently. Numbers don’t have to add up. Agendas don’t have to be outlined. Such things can be finessed. The automatic assumption that more detailed plans and specific promises equal electoral appeal is wrong. So is the related assumption that voters are angered by broken campaign promises. Not even years-old video of Obama openly inviting voters to fire him, if his promises came up short, made all that much of an impact. The current electorate has a short collective memory, and keeping them focused on long-term issues is not easy. They respond very strongly to brief, bright surges in the news cycle – Obama’s determination to keep winning those short-term news cycles was a winning strategy.
Incumbency can be a disadvantage. It’s an advantage that can be overcome, as incumbent Presidents do lose elections occasionally, but it’s probably never going to be a net minus in the hands of a skilled politician, no matter what his record in office looks like. Incumbency allows control of the news cycle, as Obama demonstrated after Hurricane Sandy. Challengers don’t have anything to match this on a national scale – they can only get so much national attention from their conventions, debate appearances, and naming a running mate. Those opportunities must be maximized. It’s hard to do what Bill Clinton did to the elder George Bush; Clinton is a highly skilled politician, and he had a sympathetic media.
Undecided voters break against the incumbent. There was always some doubt about how strong this tendency is, and it’s safe to say it varies from one race to the next, based on particular circumstances… but they probably mostly break in favor of a campaign that was doing well anyway… and when it comes to a relatively low-turnout status-quo shrug of an election, they’ll stay with the incumbent, thanks to the above-mentioned powers of incumbency.
“Electability” is the highest virtue in a candidate. It’s obviously important to run candidates with broad appeal, but Republican primary voters don’t currently seem very good at divining what “electability” really means. It’s not really a flavor of vanilla inoffensiveness or calculated “moderate” appeal – it’s the ability to promote powerful campaign themes in persuasive ways, and for Republicans in particular, it has a lot to do with the ability to run a stumble-free race. It’s funny how fast “electability” can dissipate in a single “gaffe” for GOP candidates, and how frequently they tend to forget it. Words must be measured twice and cut once, as a carpenter handles wood.