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.

Lack of enthusiasm? No problem.

Resurgent Republic posted this infographic last week (which I swiped from an email from Pennsylvania political consultancy ColdSpark Media):


The full-size picture does it more justice.  It charts various groups, how strong their turnout was in 2012 versus 2008, and how excited the said they were to vote.

In the last month and a week, it seems like no two Republicans can talk to each other without a discussion of What Went Wrong.  It’s a great conversation because there’s no wrong answer.  Every person who says, “I’ll tell you what Romney missed out on…” and then fills in a reason is usually right.  So the tactical deficiency in that picture is a puzzle piece, but it isn’t the whole problem.

All that said, check out the bluest of the blue groups, staunch Obama demographics like single women, 18-29 year olds, and Hispanic voters.  Isn’t it funny that the blue groups that were least excited about voting but voted more than the red groups that were more excited?  Part of the vaunted Obama turnout operation was figuring out who needed to vote and doing what it took to drag them to the polls; this sure makes it look like the credit was well-deserved.

Googlizing Campaigns

If you caught the tail end of the Roger Hedgecock show on Friday night, you may have heard me chatting with guest host Matt Lewis about the use of data in campaigns.

Much has been written in the past few weeks about the amazing things the Obama 2012 campaign did in identifying and turning out voters.  Just as much has been written about the Romney campaign’s failure to do the same thing, but it isn’t quite as fair.  There were many reasons Obama won, but the ability to take advantage of more channels of information to identify voters was a big part of it.

The private sector has been doing this for years.  For advertisers like Google and Yahoo! and e-commerce sites like Amazon, knowing what you do and  where you click online is their bread and butter.  It helps them put products in front of you that you’re more likely to buy, because they don’t make money if you don’t click.  Obama’s team was better at adapting those techniques to the campaign world.

What I didn’t get to talk about with Matt do to time constraints was the fact that Republicans can take a great deal of solace in the fact that these aren’t new magical spells being cast by technological wizards.  These are old hat tactics that can (and probably will) help Republicans with in the next campaign cycle.  For years, the advertising dollars have been moving toward personal advertising (like online ads) which can present content to an audience with much greater precision than mass advertising.

Romney adviser Stuart Stevens was ridiculed for saying that Mitt Romney ran less of a national campaign than Barack Obama, but he’s right, and Obama was right to do it.

Winning the Salmon

Immediately after the State of the Union address, NPR asked listeners to describe the President’s speech in three words, then made word clouds out of the responses.

The dominant word from the speech?  Salmon.

Even self-identified Democrats told NPR the fish was the biggest hook of the night – here’s their word cloud:

At first blush, it seems like President Obama lost his message. The President’s recommendations on economic, education, and energy policy took a backseat to a joke that, as my brother said, sounded like it was ripped off from a Kenny Bania routine.

In reality… That was gold, Jerry.  Gold!

The President’s job approval rating is creeping up, but Republicans are rebounding in the polls as well.  In other words, his return to good standing with the public probably has more to do with the fact that, since the election, there haven’t been television ads running non-stop blasting his economic and health policies.

That will, of course, change in the coming months, once the real legislative battles start, and once the Republican primary season starts in earnest negative messages about President Obama will blanket the news coverage.

For all the talk about Obama’s centrist political re-orientation, he has to be personally likable if he wants to win in 2012.  His charisma was a key factor in his ability to best John McCain in 2008, and the lack of charisma among the early Republican front runners will make this an advantage for him again next year.

Obama may not be able to get a majority of Americans to agree with him, but he can get them to like him.  A State of the Union speech most memorable for the yuks can only help that.  Viewers (and voters) can disagree about income tax policy or health care overhauls; a good sense of humor can cut across partisan lines.

Cross posted at Pundit League. Read it again!

Don’t be afraid to talk trash

In my regular Tuesday post over at Pundit League yesterday, I likened the New England Patriots’ inability to tune out trash talk from Rex Ryan and the Jawin’ Jets to a candidate or political figure who gets distracted by menial attacks.

There’s a flip side to that coin, though, and the Washington Times’s Tony Blankley hit on it today: Republicans can aggressively pursue their agenda, even if their foothold in Washington is limited to the House majority.  While some on the right fear a repeat of the 1995 government shutdown which turned public favor toward President Clinton, Blankley doesn’t expect history to repeat if the latest GOP majority refuses to fund the Obama agenda:

We lost that battle for three reasons: 1) because the shutdown was falsely but effectively framed in the public mind as motivated by the personal pique of the speaker and the desire of the GOP to “cut Medicare in order to give tax cuts to the rich,” 2) the issue of deficit spending and public debt was of much less concern to the public than it is now and 3) we were not able to deliver our interpretation of the issues directly to even our own supporters.

Back in 1995, there was no Fox News; there was no broadly used Internet; and conservative talk radio was not nearly as powerful as it is today. I had to try to get our message to the public through the filter of the mainstream media (New York Times, Washington Post, CBS, NBC, ABC, etc.) at a time when it was in fact mainstream. They were in no mood to fairly represent the facts, and we got shellacked.

Blankley advises the GOP to lose their fear of PR wars because the battlefield has changed so much in 15 years.  But he’s really advocating the same strategy the Jets used in the week leading up to the Patriots: be aggressive in messaging, and let the chips fall where they may.


Obama’s compromising word choice

Those who, in the wake of the 2010 elections, foresaw a Clintonesque Obama administration that tried to “triangulate” policy positions, the President’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal serves notice that… well, they may have been right.

First off, it’s in the Wall Street Journal, where the opinion page is widely recognized for leaning rightward.   Second, it describes an effort to strip federal bureaucracies of some layers of red tape:

Sometimes, those rules have gotten out of balance, placing unreasonable burdens on business—burdens that have stifled innovation and have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs… This order requires that federal agencies ensure that regulations protect our safety, health and environment while promoting economic growth. And it orders a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive. It’s a review that will help bring order to regulations that have become a patchwork of overlapping rules, the result of tinkering by administrations and legislators of both parties and the influence of special interests in Washington over decades.

It’s one thing to be pro-business, but the allusion to crony capitalism could be right out of a conversation with a hard core tea partier or Ron Paul.  It gives the impression of an understanding of open markets that many Republicans don’t quite get.  Much like Bill Clinton’s pronouncement that the “era of big government is over,” it absorbs conservative messaging – in fact, it echoes an executive order President Reagan made to trim regulatory costs 30 years ago.

The real policy that comes from this proclamation won’t necessarily be as business friendly or economically stimulating as the President is boasting.  But this is a message to the crucial middle ground of the American electorate – who don’t equate their center-right political views with a party identification and are pre-disposed to like Obama.  Appealing to these voters (especially when the other side still lacks a viable contrast) is the stuff reelections are made of.

How the GOP could heart Huckabee


(Image from the NY Daily News) Ken Huckaby injures Derek Jeter with a knee to the shoulder on Opening Day, 2003. Though this play had no material effect on the Yankees' 2003 season or Jeter's career and Huckaby is no relation to Mike Huckabee, the world needs to remember that this happened.

In 2008, Republican Presidential candidates climbed all over one another to compare themselves to Ronald Reagan.  It’s a sorry speech to give when the best case you have to convince voters is to try to reduce a dead President (even a great one) to a buzzword.  But if Mike Huckabee does find a way to the Republican nomination (and Politico reports the polls look good for him) he would at least be able to draw a comparison between himself and Reagan on their respective political paths.


During his oh-so-close 1976 primary challenge to former President Gerald Ford, Reagan was clearly identified in the mold of Barry Goldwater’s limited government, libertarian-themed brand of conservatism.  His 1980 path to victory was made possible by heavy inroads to southern social conservatives – then called the “Moral Majority” and today categorized as “values voters” – and convincing them to abandon favorite son Jimmy Carter.  Huckabee’s second-place showing in 2008 came from conservatives uneasy about supporting John McCain (or socially liberal Rudy Giuliani or Mormon Mitt Romney).

After being the voice of social conservatives in 2008, Huckabee’s path to the nomination in 2012 will mean courting the small-government voices – who, like the values voters from 1976-1980, have become more organized and vocal through the tea party movement.

From a policy perspective, that may not be hard for Huckabee.  Other candidates (as Politico notes) supported TARP while Huckabee opposed it, and his chief rival Romney has the albatross of his Massachusetts health care plan.

Easy right?  Not so fast.  For as much hype as the tea party received, the Club for Growth flexed some pretty big muscles in the 2010 thanks to their small-government, anti-establishment message taking a strong foothold among grassroots activists – and the Club is no friend to Huckabee.  While the Club as an organization probably couldn’t make or break a Huckabee candidacy, garnering support among Club supporters will be critical if Huckabee wants to have a legitimate comparison between himself and the Great Communicator.

Dumbphones, Presidential campaigns, and mobile politics

The Republican primary campaigns for President of the United States are – let’s face it – already underway.  That means tactical discussion are coming soon – the term “tactical discussion” being defined as giddy blog posts about who is using what new toys – and that will include a discussion of mobile phone strategy.

But in this realm, it may not be the new toys that win out, but new uses for old toys.  Dumbphones – i.e., cell phones that aren’t tiny pocket computers like the Droids and the iPhones of the world – are outselling their smartphone brethren by a rate of four to one and inspiring creative, text-message based usage.

Outside of Carly Fiorina’s losing bid to unseat Senator Barbara Boxer, there were few high-profile examples of campaigns incorporating mobile technologies.  And given the lack of smartphone penetration, fancy apps aren’t always as wise an investment for campaigns, which target broad sections of the electorate, as they are for institutions like think tanks, which are trying to reach media and other thought leaders.

Still, the vast majority of phones on the market are capable of text messaging – and in fact, three out of four mobile users use this feature, compare to less than one out of three who use smartphone apps.  This math says that if a Presidential campaign is looking to be smart with its mobile strategy, they should think dumb.

You can’t keep the People’s Seat without the people

Politico points to dismal results for Republicans in Massachusetts as a good indication that Scott Brown might not be a Senator much longer.  But a post by NRO’s Jim Geraghty recounting some intelligence from New England indicates that it may be more than the Bay State’s penchant for Democrats at play.

Geraghty’s source talks about the unified effort that Democrats and their organized labor allies made in contacting nearly a million voters to stave off another Brown-esque upset.  But the phenomenon is not exclusive to Massachusetts.  For example, in Nevada, Washington, and Colorado Democrats defended vulnerable Senate seats by outperforming opinion polls that showed either a tie or a Republican advantage.

When Brown won his election, it had much to do with enthused Republican activists (nationally as well as in Massachusetts) sensing an opportunity and paying lots of attention to the race by making phone calls or going door to door to recruit voters.  In past midterm elections, the the Republican 72-hour Task Force would do the necessary grunt work to get voters to the polls.  That effort was missing this year – and nothing takes it’s place in 2012, Brown may not be the only Republican Senator in trouble.

The race for 2012 started last week

With the mid-term elections fresh in the rear view mirror, the serious contenders for the 2012 Presidential nomination are unofficially kicking off their campaigns.  And the two likely front runners, Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, have started with a pretty smart Facebook strategy.

At TechRepublican, Ethan Demme noticed Mitt Romney’s new Facebook ads running immediately after the election, congratulating “high profile” candidates.  Tim Pawlenty has been doing the same thing.  But the strategy appears to be even more specific than that.  Here are the ads I saw:

What does incoming Arkansas Congressman Tim Griffin have in common with the Feingold-conquering Wisconsonite Senator-elect Ron Johnson?  Turns out, I’ve clicked “like” on both of their Facebook pages.  (I’ve also seen Romney ads supporting former and future Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whose Facebook page I’ve also liked.)  In other words, I’m a self-identified supporter of these politicians – a factor that Facebook’s ad platform allows campaigns to take into account when they target advertising.

By playing on the interest of possible supporters, Romney and Pawlenty share an excellent outreach strategy.  The question will become what each campaign does with the supporters they recruit.  Pawlenty has already made a push to take advantage of Facebook’s capability for activation through interactive town halls, while Romney’s page is more or less a one-way communications channel – but neither has taken a decisive lead in innovation on this platform.