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Do presidential campaigns matter?

A recent Mother Jones article listed 67 events from the 2012 presidential campaign that at least some journalist described at the time with the term "game changer." Some were plausible difference-makers, like the first debate. Some were moderately interesting developments that no one other than the journalist who wrote the words should have considered a game-changing event. The silliest was perhaps Lindsey Lohan's endorsement of Mitt Romney, although even the journalist who termed it a game-changer was almost certainly joking.

John Sides
John Sides

Most of the "game-changers" could have reasonably been labeled as "game samers," says political scientist John Sides, whose talk Tuesday at the U of M's Humphrey School was titled "Why Campaigns Don't Matter (as much as you think)."

Sides, who professes on public opinion and U.S. elections at George Washington University, likens himself to the guys from "Moneyball," who used a statistic-driven method to assess value in baseball players. The statistics on which Sides relies are mostly horse-race polls. During the 2012 presidential campaign, the polls were impressively stable.

A couple of events during the campaign seemed to jumble the polls a bit. The first debate was very good for Romney. The Democratic Convention was very good for President Obama. But even in these two instances, after a brief bump, the status-quo-ante, which showed Obama with a small lead in the average of many polls, was generally restored. When it was all over, Sides concluded, there was "no really notable movement" in the polls.

The money factor

Does it matter which side had more money? If one campaign had substantially more funds, it could matter, Sides said. But in reality, at the level of presidential campaigns, both sides have plenty of money to broadcast their messages. In 2012, if you add the campaigns to all their technically separate allies, Romney's side spent about $1.1 billion compared to $1 billion for Obama and his allies.

The Obama campaign is convinced that the decision to spend early in swing states to plant a negative image of Romney in voters' minds was one of the keys to success. Sides is careful to note that he can't disprove that theory unless the election could be rerun with a different strategy. But he seems confident that those whose worldview (and whose fortunes) is based on the belief that campaign strategy is the meaning of life, will generally come to the conclusion that every election is decided by the superior campaign strategy.

What about the famous "game-changing" gaffes, like the video of Romney in a a roomful of  well-heeled donors describing 47 percent of the U.S. population as takers? As with other such examples, Sides said these "game changers" should be called "game samers." Romney endured a really horrible period of negative news coverage after the video emerged, but Sides doesn't believe it changed the race much.

In fact, one reason presidential campaigns are so hard to "game change" is that by the time there are two major party nominees, both are very well-known to the public and therefore public impressions of the two candidates are hard to change. Polls that asked the public which candidate "cares about you" had shown that Obama was the "care about you" winner before, during and after the 47 percent event.

Steady support

Most voters knew a year in advance whom they supported. Sides participated in a survey in which voters were asked in late 2011 whom they would support if the election came down to a choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. A year later, they asked the very same voters whom they had supported on Election Day. The big takeaway finding: 95 percent of those who said in 2011 that they would vote for Obama had done so; 92 percent of those who had said they would vote for Romney had done so. That's an impressive statistic for Sides' theory.

So if campaigns don't matter, what does? Sides didn't talk much about that, although he alluded to the long-standing effort by political scientists to devise a formula predicting presidential outcomes without any reference to campaign events. Those formulae generally rely pretty heavily on the performance of the economy. When the economy is bad, it's tough for the incumbent to win. But in 2012, Sides said, most voters decided that the bad economy was more the fault of President George W. Bush than of President Obama.

Aha, said Rachel Stassen-Berger, the Strib political reporter who moderated the event, isn't it quite possible that the idea of not blaming Obama for the economy was a message successfully communicated by the Obama reelection campaign? Good question.

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Comments (3)

We'll still have them, even if they don't

There are far too many entities (e.g. TV stations and networks) addicted to the cash flow from campaign coffers for the presidential campaign to simply disappear. Moreover, one of our major political parties tends to operate in a fact-free universe, where it doesn’t make any difference how few people have their minds changed by an especially clever political ad, or what those ads cost. Too many election consultants have mortgage payments to make to think that they’ll stop recommending advertising blitzes or other public-attention gimmicks.

Personally, nothing in either campaign had any influence on my presidential choice. As soon as it became evident that no one would violate tradition and seriously challenge Obama on the Democratic side, and as soon as the Republican field had pretty much narrowed itself down to a literal handful of candidates, I knew who I’d be voting for. Having paid attention all along to articles and interviews of the major figures in the campaign over the past four years, I already had at least some idea where just about everyone stood on most major issues. Television ads did nothing to change my mind, nor did newspaper or magazine ads.

There is no doubt that the

There is no doubt that the majority of voters had decided very early--the strident "me-too" (and even "me-more") stands of the Republican primary candidates gave a clear choice between Obama and the Republicans..

However, the "etch-a-sketch" general campaign approach by Romney shows that attracting the undecided or uninformed voter was predicated on moderating the bluster of the primary. I have no doubt that Romney would have lost by a significantly higher percentage if he had continued on with the primary rhetoric without moderation.

As for the 95% and 92% certainty quoted, the people who could identify Obama and Romney in late 2011 already knew enough to make up their minds, so that high a percentage is not particularly surprising (I could easily attribute the somewhat greater Romney drop-off to the craven pandering of the late campaign). As of late 2011, the involved and informed could not possibly confuse the Romney and Obama position.

The subsequent general campaign was entirely for attracting the people who would have, in late 2011, answered "I don't know" or "undecided" to Mr. Sides' survey--that's a stale truism for every close campaign. Every nail-biter campaign has to be about educating, inspiring and motivating the uninvolved or uninformed. These billions spent were spent for a small percentage of possible voters in a handful of states.

In other words

A lot money money is spent on attracting the 2% of the voters who will determine the outcome.