Asking the wrong questions about 2012

John Sides and Lynn Vavreck had an insightful post on the 2012 election, where they chart out 10 points that challenge what they consider to be conventional wisdom.  Some of them are right on, but some of them simply ask the wrong questions.

Finding 1: Republicans liked Romney.  

Finding 2: Conservative Republicans liked Romney, too.

Finding 3: Republican Primary voters were not much divided by ideology

Finding 4: Romney appealed to the mainstream of the party

Much of the post tries to dispel the myth that primary Republicans were in an “anyone but Mitt” kind of mood.  The conventional wisdom, as Sides and Vavreck recount it, is that Romney was imagined as too moderate by the predominantly extremely conservative base of the Republican party.  By charting his favorability ratings against other candidates, Sides and Vavreck claim Romney was always viewed as a palatable choice.  To underscore the point, they note the philosophical consensus of most GOP primary participants based on their candidate of choice, and note that they are pretty much bunched together.

The problem with these three points is a misreading of the fundamental problems Romney had among primary voters that drove the “Anybody But Mitt” movement.  “Favorability” is not the same as enthusiasm.  Polls as late as January 2012 showed a primary electorate eager for an alternative: 58% of GOP voters wanted more choices on their Presidential slate.  Rick Perry’s campaign fizzled, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum took turns in the media spotlight but without the resources to turn go beyond media attention.

Most famously, Romney had changed his views on public health care and the right to life.  Public shifts in views when one is running for a new office are generally looked down upon by people in the know.

That all suggests Romney was the veggie tray of the 2012 buffet: it’s certainly palatable, but only when you find out there isn’t any popcorn shrimp.  Demonstrating that he had broad appeal to Republican voters doesn’t mean he inspired excitement.  Did Republicans like Romney?  Maybe the way one likes a carrot stick smothered in ranch dressing.  I would have liked to see Sides and Vavreck delve into questions of voter intensity – in other words, just how much did they like Romney?

Finding 5: The economic fundamentals favored Obama 

There’s no beef with this one – they are right on.  While those on the outside could yammer about lost jobs and economic theory, Obama could point to real progress.

Finding 6: Party loyalty is really powerful.

Finding 7: Most groups of voters move in a similar fashion from election to election.

These two were interesting and a little surprising, since party identification is down overall.  But those who still identify as Republican or Democrat tend to stick with their horse.  That should inspire a wave of voter registration and recruitment efforts and help Republicans realize how critical local party committees and organizations like the College Republicans are for building a foundation.

Finding 8: Obama “gifts” didn’t amount to much.

Demographic groups who voted for Obama didn’t view their support as transactional, Sides and Vavreck claim.  As evidence, they point to the lack of support spikes or bumps in public polling around certain events.  For example, blue collar workers did not start supporting the President more around the the auto bailout.

This is buyable, but like the Anybody But Romney findings, it glosses over the subtleties of the politics of voter support.  A vote isn’t usually a quid pro quo.  This is something that Republicans misunderstand when they clumsily try to out-conservative each other in primaries.  A pattern of action builds support more than rhetoric or an isolated policy statement.

The gifts phrase comes, of course, from Romney’s bitter postgame assessment of his failed campaign.  It’s a flawed assessment, so Sides and Vavreck are right to blow up this myth, but it wasn’t worth taking seriously to begin with.

Finding 9:  It was hard for Obama or Romney to out-campaign the other.

Sides and Vavreck look at GRPs and money spent on ads – by both the campaigns and outside groups – and find them roughly equal.  Therefore,  “their campaigns were often canceling each other out.”  This position is as questionable as the “Anybody but Romney” points.

It makes sense because there’s only so much advertising time to buy.  But there isn’t much discussion of the quality of the ads, or of the source.  Remember Obama’s strategy of targeting low-information voters at the margins with ad buys on Friends reruns?  Fewer people saw those ads  – and they cost much less – than the Romney or Crossroads GPS ad buys during local news programs.  But those ads may have turned out more voters.

This point excludes the possibility that one side’s ads could have been more effective than the others’.  Further, putting so-called allies in the same bucket with the candidate assumes that said allies are equally effective at communicating the candidates’ messages.  While both Romney rooters and Obama fans might have had equal shares of the airwaves, that’s poor evidence that one side would cancel the other out.

Finding 10: Romney did not lose because he was perceived as too conservative.

Here’s an interesting point: voters perceived Romney’s political views as closer to their own.  “This also complicates any interpretation of the election as a mandate for Obama,” write Sides and Vavreck.  “He seemed to win in spite of how his political beliefs were perceived, not because of them.”

This one is right on, and there’s a very valuable lesson in it: Voters won’t punish a candidate for being “too conservative” or “too liberal.”  They will punish a candidate for being weird.  If you use words like “varmints”,  if you randomly ask “Who let the dogs out?”, or if you say your don’t care about 47% of America,  you might have trouble getting people who agree with you to think you’d be a good President.

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