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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

T-Paw’s impeccable timing

He may not win the GOP nomination, but Tim Pawlenty has his timing down pat.

From the carefully timed announcement of his exploratory committee – before any other major contender, but not too early – to his Johnny-on-the-spot criticisms of the current administration, Pawlenty has been quick on the draw at just the right moment.

It happened again today, with Pawlenty’s official announcement of his Presidential bid.

The big story over the weekend was Mitch Daniels bowing out of the race.  The stories about the “weak” Republican field were already written: you saw them after Mike Huckabee’s exit earlier this month, and even after Donald Trump’s withdrawal before that.  Each time that story gets rewritten, it’s bad news for Tim Pawlenty; it makes the Republican field sound like Mitt Romney and the Seven Dwarfs, with him as one of the dwarfs.  (Possibly Bashful.)

By announcing just two days after Daniels’s deferral, Pawlenty answers those stories without whining that he’s being overlooked.  He keeps his donors and activists engaged, and he keeps his campaign moving forward.

And that’s all he has to do right now.  With Daniels stepping aside, the path for Pawlenty to the nomination becomes clearer:  has a sporting shot at winning the Iowa caucuses, and after he’s a very plausible contender in South Carolina and possibly Florida.  Coming out of the early states within striking distance of Romney would make Pawlenty a viable alternative for conservative activists who can’t get excited about Romney’s policy baggage (i.e. health care).

Slow and steady may not sound like the way to win a presidential race, but at this point who’s going to argue with Pawlenty’s timing?

The GOP Primary Presents: “Answering For Santino” Week

The three front runners for the Republican nomination each have baggage, and since last week we’ve seen their strategies for dealing with it.  Tim Pawlenty is very sorry about signing a cap-and-trade bill while he governed Minnesota; Mitt Romney has some ‘splainin’ to do to get people to quit using the word “Romneycare”; and Newt Gingrich… well, Newt’s got kind of a Cee Lo Green thing going on with his previous support for aggressive environmental action:

“I’d do a commercial with Al Gore,” Gingrich said last May in an interview with the website Human Events. “My point is conservatives ought to be prepared to stand on the same stage and offer a conservative solution.”

Pawlenty’s strategy is probably the best for now (pending Romney’s speech).  It is, appropriately enough, safe and genuine, but Gingrich is at least sort of right, too.  This line of messaging does help to further the idea that he is the Thinking Republican’s Candidate to a degree.  But the audience shouldn’t be conservatives (at least, not quite so obviously).

The past five years are absolutely full of examples of grassroots activists demonstrating that they don’t like to be lectured to.  There was Marco Rubio besting Charlie Crist in Republican primary polls (and eventually the general election), Joe Miller over Lisa Murkowski, and Rand Paul over Trey Grayson in Kentucky’s Senate race.  If you feel like going back farther and crossing the aisle, ask Joe Lieberman how rank and file Democrats felt about him in 2006.

You don’t like being lectured to.  Do you hear me?  You don’t like it.  (You do, however, appreciate irony, I hope.)

The point is, that instead of scolding conservatives that they should be stewards of the environment, Gingrich should be more inclusive.  Consider how his second sentence above would sound with a slightly different perspective:

“My point is that we can stand on the same stage and offer better, more creative solutions that will protect our environment without putting people out of work.”

Wouldn’t that make you feel a little bit better about being on the same side as Gingrich – as if you’re both part of the same winning team?