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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Careful what you wish for…

Politico points out today how the Obama 2012 machine has been thrilled with Rick Perry’s attacks on Mitt Romney, occasionally piling on to wound the erstwhile Massachusetts governor.  The reasoning goes that Perry (or anyone else from the GOP field) would be easier for the President to beat in the general election.

That may sound familiar.  In 2008, with their own nomination pretty much decided, some Republicans went to the polls in late primary states intending to affect the Democratic ballot.  In Texas, a vote for then-candidate Obama was a way to put the final nail in the coffin for the Clinton Era.  In Virginia, some Republicans insisted on voting for Obama to encourage the Democrats to nominate an inexperienced, first-term Senator as their nominee.

Whether as part of an “Anybody But Hillary” movement or whether they believed that Obama was the weaker candidate, would those Republicans vote the same way if they could go for a spin in Doc Brown’s DeLorean?   If they had a hot tub time machine, do you think the 2007 Patriots would have rooted a bit harder for the talented-on-paper Packers or the Cowboys to come out of the NFC for Superbowl 42?

Similarly, Team Obama may think Rick Perry, with his low poll numbers and early campaign missteps, would be a more attractive opponent in November 2012.  It certainly looks like that match up would favor the President prohibitively – and the President looks good up against any of the other GOP hopefuls, too.  It isn’t even November of 2011 yet, though – and a year is a long time.

Presidential Power Rankings: 10.22.2011

Every major professional sport except college football has an entire system to determine the best team. That doesn’t stop those covering each sport from postulating who the best team is on a week-to-week basis. Since the Presidential race has become an odd mix of reality television, sports, and horse racing, why not do the same?

Here’s what my white board looks like this week:

1. Barack Obama. Dean Wormer: Dead! Niedermeyer: Dead! Gaddafi: Dead! The President looked Presidential this week, and American Crossroads polling indicated his “tax the rich” rhetoric has a chance to resonate.

2. Mitt Romney. The sheen of inevitability was nicked in the last debate, but Romney continues to line up endorsements.

3. Rick Perry. The signs of life Perry showed in the Nevada debate should re-energize supporters, donors, and the rest of the campaign infrastructure for a short time. His points on domestic energy development, which he has been bringing up in debates consistently, give him a positive issue to run on that no other serious candidate is talking about.

4. Herman Cain. Cain is driving the Republican discussion with his 9-9-9 plan. The row over his pro-life beliefs won’t be a deal-breaker because there is no meat to it, but may be indicative of a more serious problem with message discipline. His ability to do the blocking and tackling it takes to build an election-winning organization is still suspect. Still the front-runner for the Vice President slot on the GOP ticket.

5. Ron Paul. Paul is still the life of the party. The troop withdrawal in Iraq will give him another chance to tell the rest of the party he told them so.

6. Michelle Bachmann. Her staff in New Hampshire wasn’t all that important, anyway. Iowa is Bachmann’s make-or-break playing field.

7. Chris Christie. Despite denials and endorsements to the contrary, still more likely to be President in 2013 than the last two people on this list. On the outside chance that Romney and Perry wind up in a brokered convention stalemate in August 2012, Christie looks like an obvious choice to unite the party. Sure, it’s a long shot, but still more likely than…

8. Rick Santorum. Santorum looked shrill and childish going after Romney in the Nevada debate, but he made his points. He could wind up as the kamikaze of the debate season.

9. John Huntsman. Still waiting for his mojo. His candidacy is tough to define, though his shots at Herman Cain in the previous debate were witty and clever.

Romney’s online ads and offline issues

Last week, Mashable and David Weigel both noted that Mitt Romney has been investing in web ads, but that he has yet to run an actual TV commercial in the early primary states (or any other states, obviously).  Mashable chalks it up to a money-saving move that has the added benefit of appealing to young voters:

It’s possible the candidates are waiting to amass more funds to pay for more-expensive airtime. Or, they could be engaged in an informal standoff for who will try to rule the airwaves.

On the other hand, web ads are a smart move. They are relatively cheaper to make and broadcast and naturally appeal to younger, web-savvy voters — traditionally a weak spot for Republicans.

After the criticism he took in last night’s debate, though, a web-focused strategy makes perfect sense for Mitt Romney.  The video which spawned last week’s round of coverage chided the Obama Administration on trade and intellectual property rights, which isn’t exactly a front-page-news-making issue.  It does, however, speak to some key audiences.  It’s one thing to say you appeal to philosophical conservatives who view government as an instrument to protect citizens’ rights and voters whose views align with business and commerce; but Romney’s ad deals brings up a niche issue that demonstrates an understanding of these voters’ motivations and concerns.

These are also the types of voters who are probably still deciding whether or not a Romney Presidency would be better enough than an Obama Presidency to be excited about a Romney candidacy.  Despite the fireworks of last night’s debate and this morning’s conventional wisdom that the other candidates put him on the defensive, Romney still carries the mantle of inevitability as the 2012 Republican nominee.  He still has plenty of people to convince to avoid being an also-ran in the same category as former inevitable nominees Bob Dole and John McCain.  He won’t be able to explain away his Massachusetts health plan, but online video gives him a medium to show conservatives he understands other issues.

Ron Paul is not suffering from media bias

A strong and close second-place finish at the Ames Straw poll for Ron Paul ignited almost no media coverage whatsoever – until some folks realized that Paul wasn’t getting any media coverage, which then became the story.  It’s one thing for Paul supporters to air their grievances about being ignored, but in a rare moment of astute political insight, even the Daily Show called out the media’s Paul-sized blind spot.

Charles Krauthammer had a valid answer: Paul will not be President.  He will not be as successful when the straw polls give way to caucuses, and he will do worse yet when the decisions come from the ballot box.  For a media covering horse race politics, giving serious ink to Ron Paul is like giving ink to Mr. Ed – he’s interesting, but he ain’t beating Secretariat, or any other horse.  On the other hand, while Tim Carney admits that Paul is a bad candidate, he points out that the Congressman has been consistently proven correct in his assessment of domestic and foreign policy over several years.  Stewart quips that Paul planted the small government seeds that germinated into today’s grassroots tea party movement.

Carney and Stewart are correct.  The real issue is a political press that doesn’t understand politics beyond the tally of votes in the second week in November.  The small government ethos that inspired the tea party to take out incumbents in 2010 has been brewing since late in the first term of George W. Bush, when the Republican party was entrenched in the legislative and executive but without a clear governing vision.  Paul was an early banner carrier for that philosophy, and in many way is the heart and soul of the current Republican party.  As he chugs along with single-digit polling numbers, other candidates have been and will be elected with Paul’s ideas.

Many political mini-movements see their standard-bearers run into electoral machine gun fire early on.  Remember that in 2004, Howard Dean crystallized the Democratic left but failed to win a single primary or caucus (except for his home state of Vermont, and that came after he had dropped out of the race).  By 2006, Democrat activists were dumping off Joe Lieberman in a primary and in 2008 they put a charismatic leader in the White House – bit it was Dean in 2004 who lit the fire.  There are winning candidates, and there are important candidates; the two are not always the same.

Too Conservative to Win?

Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have tag teamed to dominate the news cycles in recent days.  And as the opinionatti of the punditocracy (or whatever fun little nicknames you prefer) struggle to wrap their heads around what a straw poll victory and a late entry into the Presidential sweepstakes mean, they keep asking an intriguing question: Are these candidates too conservative to win a general election matchup against President Barack Obama?

This is especially true of the coverage of Bachmann; but taken together the Minnesota Congresswoman and the Texas Governor really display why this question is, to use the technical terms, BS.

No serious analyst of the race really believes Michele Bachmann has a snowball’s chance in the current residence  of Iowa native John Wayne Gacy.  If she wins the Republican nomination, she will most likely lose badly to the incumbent – maybe not Mondale vs. Reagan bad, but probably Dole vs. Clinton bad.  Bachmann will simply not resonate with a broad audience of American voters.

If Bachmann loses, it will not be for her views but for her tendency for gaffery.  Aside from confusing 20th century alpha male John Wayne with creepy clown artist/serial killer Gacy, Bachmann celebrated the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death by wishing The King a happy birthday.  For many political viewers, Bachmann’s introduction to the national stage came during a horribly flubbed “tea party response” to the State of the Union address.

The trend line is evident: under the glare of the national spotlight, Bachmann is unpolished, rough, and prone to mistakes.  She is, it seems, an incompetent campaigner.  Audiences who already agree with her message will overlook that, but audiences who need convincing will not.  Those folks will become more accepting of the other, seemingly competent voices who call her extreme.

Then comes the media storyline: Conservative goes down in flames to Mainstream Candidate.

You saw plenty of it in 2010, when tea partiers were blamed for costing Republicans gains in the US Senate. Primary victories by  Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware were frequently cited as an example of primaries run amok.

All three lost, of course.  Angle and Miller had run-ins with the media that suggested the pressures of the campaign were getting to them; O’Donnell’s campaign was only notable for its ill-advised “I am not a witch” ad.  Meanwhile, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul won their Senate races.  Arch-conservative Ronald Reagan was President; Moderates Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole were a half-termer, a one-termer and a no-termer, respectively.

A candidate has to appeal to voters, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum.  Barack Obama may have been the most ideologically-driven to assume the Presidency since Lyndon Johnson; he was also likeable and projected strength.

As he begins his Presidential campaign, Rick Perry will face the same question as Bachmann: Is he “too conservative to win”?  And whether the eventual Republican nominee is Perry, Bachmann, or even Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign will surely try to stick the “right-wing extremist” label squarely on their metaphorical forehead.

Candidates with good, disciplined messages don’t let those labels stick.

Cross posted at PunditLeague.us.

2012 Math

Friday’s downgrade of America’s credit rating and the subsequent stock market skittishness naturally means a new round of speculation on President Obama’s re-election chances.  This week Gallup released state-by-state job approval numbers that paint a picture of an incumbent with some work to do.

President Obama’s approval ratings are listed as “below average” (under 44% or so) in 18 states,  representing 162 electoral votes.  Including three other typically “red” states where his ratings are average but still low (Arizona, Mississippi, and Georgia) would bring that total to 195.  Throwing in North Carolina and Virginia – traditionally Republican states the President carried by narrow margins in 2008 – the number jumps to 223, or 47 electoral votes shy of victory.  That scenario would make Ohio and Florida (with a combined 47 electoral votes) especially critical.

Should this be cause for Republican celebration?  Not so fast.

Not factored into these numbers, of course, is election performance – the poll measures only approval rating, not his performance against specific opponents or even the “Generic GOP candidate.”  He has 173 electoral votes in his pocket where he has above average approval ratings, plus another 45 in states which he is likely to win (Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, and Oregon).  That gives the President a total of 218 electoral votes in house money.  And Presidential house money is worth more than challenger house money.

As Gallup notes, George W. Bush’s approval ratings were pretty low heading into the 2004 race – around 48%.  His massive campaign apparatus found his supporters in the right places and got them to the polls – the type of blocking and tackling the Obama campaign was good at in 2008.  Gallup’s numbers may seem optimistic for Republicans, but they actually paint a pretty good picture for the President.