Game changer: Campaign attack ads don't count | Arkansas Blog

Game changer: Campaign attack ads don't count

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IT'S ALL THEATER: New poll-driven book says there were no game-changers in the high theater of the 2012 presidential campaign.
  • IT'S ALL THEATER: New poll-driven book says there were no game-changers in the high theater of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Read this review by Ezra Klein of essential reading for political junkies.

And, no, it's not about "Game Change 2," another feast of insider horse race political trivia.

It's about "The Gamble," a data-driven assessment of the 2012 election.

Forget everything you ever thought about political campaigns, Klein suggests.

Events described as game changers — 68 events got such a description in 2012 — were NOT. Polls show they didn't move voters significantly. Including Mitt Romney's famous 47 percent video. Authors John Sides and Lynn Vavreck were not insiders. They were not embedded. They didn't trade coffee shop tidbits. Klein explains:

Sides and Vavreck partnered with the online polling firm YouGov and repeatedly surveyed an enormous pool — 45,000 Americans. They analyzed news coverage from 11,000 media outlets — which is about 10,863 more outlets than I can recall covering the election. They have data on who bought how many television spots and where. Underpinning their real-time information are decades of supporting political-science data and theory.

The result is that while most election narratives track the inputs of the campaign, Sides and Vavreck track the outputs. They know less than traditional political reporters about what the campaigns wanted to do but much more about what actually got done.

Remember "You didn't build that"? Didn't budge voters. Heres' the key:

Campaigns are less successful at persuading undecided voters than they are at encouraging their own partisans to grow more fierce. The manic charges and countercharges of an election mostly remind voters which side they were on to begin with. “Strengthening people’s natural partisan predispositions is one of the most consistent effects of presidential campaigns,” Sides and Vavreck write. “Democrats or Republicans who at the start of the campaign feel a bit uncertain or unenthusiastic about their party’s nominee will end up dedicated supporters.”

This is, they noted, an established finding among political scientists. As a 1940 study of voters concluded, “Knowing a few of their personal characteristics, we can tell with fair certainty how they will finally vote: They join the fold to which they belong. What the campaign does is to activate their political predispositions.”

So it's all about motivating the base. The image of President Obama is sufficient for that in Arkansas. Or the word Obamacare. The continuing central question of Arkansas politics is whether Obama hatred is a reliable indicator of the general preferences of the electorate. In 2010, there was one significant exception to that theory, Gov. Mike Beebe. But only one. Republicans otherwise proved a reflexive choice.

Klein writes that the 2012 presidential election began pretty evenly matched in terms of base support and both campaigns were good at what they did and well-financed.

But the results are broadly predictable: The two sides will make mostly sound decisions interrupted by occasional mistakes (“gaffes”), and the election outcome will mostly be driven by partisan allegiances and voter assessments of the economy and the incumbent president.

Indeed, a data model the authors built in June 2012 — before the summer ad blitz, Romney’s pick of Paul Ryan for vice president, conventions, debates and all the rest — predicted Obama would win 52.7 percent of the two-party vote. Sides and Vavreck were off: He won 52 percent.

So there. Most of the coverage doesn't matter. The cacophony of messaging on Twitter, Facebook and the 30-second ad onslaught that's already underway in Arkansas? They don't matter much either in tilting the undecided. It's just theater. And the media, if you want to criticize, are open more to the charge of sensationalism for the sake of drama than bias.

Says Klein:

The news media overestimate the effects of micro events (those 68 “game-changers") and underestimate the relatively stable foundation — partisanship, the state of the economy — on which those events play out.

Reading Klein was nearly life-altering for me this morning. This is how dramatic the impact. I decided Rep. Nate Bell may be at least onto something. A day doesn't pass that the retrograde Republican is not tweeting message after message that Arkansas is in the economic toilet (drop in number employed, for example) and that Gov. Mike Beebe is to blame. Public opinion polls show the average Arkansas is less gloomy about our economic condition. I don't think Nate Bell's tweets to his few thousand followers are likely to change broad public sentiment much, but if it does change, well he's right about this…. It's still the economy stupid.


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