What Moves What

No polling firm has ever called here and asked questions. And probably no one knows anyone who has been called by these firms, so maybe they make it all up – three bored guys in a back room deciding how things are going with the presidential campaigns. But no, that can’t be. Gallup and all the rest of them would be out of business if anyone found out they were just messing with us. One must assume they do what they say they do, although it would be tempting if they called here to mess with them, telling them the only ticket worth voting for is Ted Nugent for president and Check Norris for vice president, as long as the two of them promise to make Pat Boone the new secretary of state. Yeah, yeah – Gallup would hang up right then and there – but it would be fun.

Still, polling is a mysterious business. The polling firms say their polls reveal the true state of things, but you might remember what Guildenstern says to Rosencrantz, or the other way around, in the Tom Stoppard play that riffs on Hamlet. The two of them are on a ship to England where they will be executed and they simply refuse to believe such a thing is happening to them. The one says to the other that he doesn’t even believe there is such a place as England. People talk about England all the time but no one he knows has ever seen it, really. He decides it might be just a conspiracy of cartographers. Political polls are like that. What’s real just can’t be so, even if it is so. They must have asked the wrong people. They must have asked the wrong questions. Maybe they made it all up.

Political campaigns only feel that way when the polls show dismal data for them, and the most recent polling has Republicans in a bit of a panic, as ABC’s latest poll offers that dismal data, even if the top line is vaguely comforting:

Barack Obama has emerged from the nominating conventions in his best position against Mitt Romney since spring, a 50-44 percent race among registered voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll. But Romney recovers to a virtual dead heat among those most likely to vote, keeping the contest between them wide open.

Registered voters are not the same as likely voters of course. It’s not denial to see that many of those who will probably get off their fat asses and actually vote are still with you. That’s comforting, but the details, the internals, are alarming:

For the first time he’s numerically ahead of Romney in trust to handle the economy, the key issue of the 2012 contest, albeit by a scant 47-45 percent. Obama’s seized a 15-point lead in trust to advance the interests of the middle class. And strong enthusiasm among his supporters is up by 8 points from its pre-convention level; Obama now leads Romney by 10 points in “very” enthusiastic support.

And there’s this:

Registered voters by 63-31 percent say Romney has not provided enough details on the policies he’d pursue as president.

And Romney isn’t seen as a good guy either:

Obama’s advantages, in turn, include a persistent lead over Romney in empathy; registered voters by 50-40 percent think Obama better understands the economic problems people are having, and continue to rate him as more personally likeable, by a broad and steady 61-27 percent. (When the two views are tested against each other, empathy independently predicts vote preferences to a far greater degree than does likeability.)

Obama is at his best against Romney in another attribute, being seen as the stronger leader, 50-42 percent; and runs numerically ahead, albeit not significantly, in being better able to work with both sides in Congress, 46-41 percent.

On a personal level, building on his advantage in likeability, registered voters by wide margins would prefer to have Obama to dinner at their home, think he is more likely than Romney to be “a loyal friend,” and would rather have Obama care for them if they were sick.

That may be silly, but this isn’t:

In a more general question on political values, registered voters by 65-23 percent say it’s more important that they trust what a candidate says than that they agree with that candidate. And trust in what both candidates are saying is weak, but better for Obama: Registered voters by 49-42 percent say his campaign is saying things it believes to be true, rather than intentionally trying to mislead people. On Romney these numbers go negative…

There’s nothing but trouble here:

Beyond the economy, Obama has regained a significant, 11-point advantage over Romney in trust to handle terrorism, up from a scant 4-point gap in the spring. Obama has a 13-point lead in trust to handle international issues, an 11-point lead on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and his widest advantage, 21 points, in trust to address women’s issues.

You can talk all you want about a conspiracy of cartographers, but this is England and someone is actually facing political execution – see Laura Ingraham To GOP: “If You Can’t Beat Obama With This Record, Then Shut Down The Party” and the New York Post on The GOP Mini-Panic and so on. Laura Ingraham is the Fox News Dragon Lady who keeps telling Bill O’Reilly that old wishy-washy Bill is just too liberal and generous to the Democrats – Bill once said Michelle Obama was actually a nice woman and she went ballistic. Now she is most unhappy with Mitt.

How did this happen? Over on that side some say it must be Paul Ryan, like William Kristol in the Weekly Standard:

Romney gained some ground when he chose Paul Ryan. But now he seems to be back to a pre-Ryan sort of campaign. When a challenger merely appeals to disappointment with the incumbent and tries to reassure voters he’s not too bad an alternative, that isn’t generally a formula for victory.

And there was Weekly Standard columnist Stephen Hayes on Fox News:

I feel like now we’ve sort of reverted to this pre-Ryan moment – this safe, cautious campaign.

He’s frustrated and the Washington Examiner’s Byron York in this item quotes an anonymous but obviously important Republican:

“I thought the Ryan choice was a clear announcement of a new strategy,” says one well-connected Republican not associated with the campaign. “But what seems to have happened is the campaign has drifted back to the position that this is just a referendum on Barack Obama. At some point, you have to earn the presidency.”

If only Mitt Romney had unleashed the awesome Ayn Rand fury of an unfettered Paul Ryan, saying the weak and unlucky should perish and only the rich survive, and that the government should simply curl up and die! But that might have scared the hell out of folks. The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson says that Romney isn’t THAT crazy:

What initially seemed like an ideological choice – previewing a shift in campaign strategy and content – now seems like a more personal decision … Romney chose Ryan, not Ryanism.

Maybe Paul Ryan isn’t the problem, but it’s all very puzzling, and there’s also something else in the ABC poll:

Additionally, there’s been a shift in preferences in the eight tossup states identified by the ABC News Political Unit: Registered voters in these states now favor Obama over Romney by 54-40 percent, vs. 42-48 percent in these same states before the party conventions.

Kevin Drum finds that astonishing:

That’s a shift of 12 points in a couple of weeks. WTF? Why did battleground state voters respond to the conventions so much more strongly than everyone else? That’s a gigantic swing. Was there something else going on at the same time that could explain this? Did advertising strategies change? Did Hurricane Isaac boost Obama for some reason?

There’s gotta be something. Even if the GOP convention was a dud and the Democratic convention was a barnburner, there’s no way enough people were watching in the first place to account for a change of this size. So what happened?

The Romney campaign is asking the same question, or should be. What moves voters this way? What moves what? For example, on the same day as the ABC poll Gallup reported that the “US-Gallup Economic Confidence Index” shot up eleven points during the week of the Democratic National Convention.

Andrew Leonard discusses how odd that was:

The jump was the sharpest since the inception of the index and marks the high point for 2012. And it’s a puzzler. One might expect that after Bill Clinton’s speech, Americans would be more inclined to blame Republicans for the mess we’re still in. But to be more confident about their own prospects? That’s peculiar. And it’s all the more befuddling because the week finished with a disappointing labor report. There’s no objective, quantifiable reason why Americans should have ended last week considerably more optimistic about the economy than they began it.

Leonard sees only one thing that could have caused this, and that’s Michelle Obama’s speech, as the Gallup data show:

It appears that the spark for the dramatic rise in Americans’ economic confidence last week was the Democratic National Convention. A review of Gallup’s nightly tracking results shows that the index was consistently near or below -25 each night in late August and early September, but then sharply improved on Sept. 4, the first night of the convention, to -18.

Confidence then held at or near -18 through Sunday, despite the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ mixed August unemployment report Friday morning showing continued weak jobs growth.

One night can change everything, as Leonard sees it:

The crazy thing is, Michelle Obama didn’t really address the state of the economy, other than to express her profound faith that her husband was going to keep plugging away in his attempts to fix things up.

Suddenly, after all these years, I understand the American love affair with Ronald Reagan a lot better. He stood up there, flashed his pearly whites, and told us it was “morning in America” again, and an impressive majority of Americans believed him. The first lady appears to have the same transformative power. Something tells me swing state residents are going to be seeing an awful lot of her over the next eight weeks.

What moves what? Even Bill O’Reilly likes Michelle Obama, and there’s something about talking about the virtue of just plugging away and doing your best, and not getting down in the dirt with all the nasty guys. You don’t even have to be specific. Reagan seldom was. You just have to be human, not a partisan robot.

In the National Journal that’s what Charlie Cook is getting at in his diagnosis of what’s gone wrong for Romney:

The decision to defer any biographical ads until August – ads that would have sought to define Romney on a personal level beyond being just rich, as someone worthy of trust, and as someone whom swing-voters might be comfortable having in the White House -is inexplicable. The Obama campaign and allies ripped Romney apart in swing-state advertising, and with no Teflon coating to protect their candidate, it stuck like Velcro. While Romney allies say that such positive ads did not “move numbers” when dial-tested, my view is that these kinds of ads are essential to making their candidate acceptable. No matter how unhappy voters are, if they are uncomfortable with the alternative, the incumbent survives.

Only in the last few days has the Romney campaign begun buying any time in swing states on local cable systems, something the Obama team has been doing for months. While one campaign has been looking for every nook and cranny to reach voters and has been doing so for some time, the other didn’t bother until after the conventions. Go figure.

The Romney campaign made the extraordinary decision to not try seriously to connect their candidate with voters on a personal level until their convention. As dubious as that decision was, they were rewarded by having a convention shortened by a day due to a hurricane, then compounded the error of waiting until the convention by putting much of what was most needed to be seen in the 8 and 9 p.m. hours, when the only viewers would be C-SPAN fans. Wow! The biographical film and the testimonials of people whose lives had been touched by Romney were powerful, necessary, and largely unseen. Instead, the Romney campaign treated them to the Clint Eastwood debacle and a serviceable speech by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida that should have been made earlier, not chewing up precious broadcast airtime. At the 10-11 p.m. hour, abbreviated personal testimonies and the film introducing Romney’s own speech – which was quite good – would have made for an extraordinary hour of television and very likely have done him a lot of good with voters.

Team Romney does not seem to know what moves what, and Cook looks forward to the presidential debates, Romney’s last best hope, but notes those are not a good place for “demonstrating empathy and developing trust” – that’s not the right venue. There you have to defend unpopular or at least hazy policy positions. You need to be precise and specific, not Romney’s favorite thing either, so Cook offers this:

This is a very close race and one that still could go either way. But the odds of Romney capitalizing on this economy, and the opportunity it affords, seem lower than they were before the conventions. If Republicans and Romney supporters are growing nervous, they should be.

It comes down to this:

It is becoming clear that if President Obama is reelected, it will be despite the economy and because of his campaign. If Mitt Romney wins, it will be because of the economy and despite his campaign.

Niall Ferguson agrees:

 It’s a paradox. The economy is in the doldrums. Yet the incumbent is ahead in the polls. According to a huge body of research by political scientists, this is not supposed to happen.

What was supposed to move voters, the crappy economy, didn’t move them, or didn’t move them in the right direction, or at least the expected direction, but the Washington Post’s resident über-wonk, Ezra Klein, says it’s not that simple:

This is, I think, a fair summation of the conventional wisdom on this election: The economy is bad enough that Obama should lose. If he doesn’t lose, then we need some way of explaining why he didn’t lose – why this election didn’t turn out, in Ferguson’s formulation, as the political scientists expected. But this view is just wrong. Things are going exactly as the political scientists expected.

I learned this the hard way. Some months ago, I worked with political scientists Seth Hill, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck to build a model that used data from every presidential election since 1948 to forecast the outcome of this presidential election. But when the model was done, I thought it was broken: It was forecasting an Obama win even under scenarios of very weak economic growth.

These things are tricky:

After a lot of frantic e-mails, my political scientist friends finally convinced me that that’s the point of a model: It forces you to check your expectations at the door. And my expectation that incumbents lose when the economy is weak was not backed up by the data, which suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction, as was true with unemployment in 1980 and 1992.

That’s just not true now:

This year, the major economic indicators are headed in the right direction, albeit slowly. We’ve been adding jobs, though not enough. We’ve been growing, though not particularly fast. We’ve seen the unemployment rate drop, though partially because workers are leaving the labor force. All in all, it’s not an impressive record. But it’s weak growth, not a new recession. And the political valence of that weak growth is unusually hard to discern, as voters continue to place more blame for our current economic troubles on George W. Bush than on Barack Obama.

Klein goes on to discuss six other forecasting models, five of which include economic data. Most are predicting an Obama win – not a big win, and not a certain win, but the odds are in Obama’s favor. Who knew? Romney’s campaign strategists didn’t know, but should have.

Slate’s Matthew Yglesias dives deep into this – if you like lots of charts – but Kevin Drum summarizes it all pretty well:

In the year before the 2008 election, employment was dropping like a stone. Sure enough, the incumbent party lost. In the year before the 2010 election, employment was at rock bottom and going nowhere. Sure enough, the incumbent party lost. But in the year before the 2012 election, employment numbers have been on a steady upward trajectory. That suggests a modest win for the incumbent party.

Obviously, Obama’s chances are hurt by the fact that unemployment remains high, wages are stagnant, and we still haven’t made up all the job losses from the recession. But politically speaking, the economy isn’t in terrible shape. It’s in okay-but-not-great shape. And that means the incumbent probably has a small advantage. If Obama wins by a couple of percentage points in November, he will have performed almost exactly as well as you’d expect given the state of the economy.

So there you have it. The polling firms weren’t messing with us. It wasn’t just three bored guys in a back room deciding how things are going with the presidential campaigns. The Romney campaign actually is in trouble, mainly because they never figured out what moves what. The economy isn’t collapsing – it did that already, on their watch. This is the slow climb back from collapse, and you don’t move the polls by suggesting we stop all that right now and try the old way of climbing out of deep economic holes, by even lower taxes on the very rich and even less regulation than when the whole financial system suddenly fell apart. Michelle Obama didn’t even need to get into the details. People knew. Yes, the Republicans have their three or four billionaires ready to spend four or five hundred million dollars of their own money to move the polls – we all know the negative ads will carpet-bomb us pretty soon – but that may not be what moves things either.

What moves what? Common sense does.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to What Moves What

  1. Rick says:

    Andrew Leonard:

    “One might expect that after Bill Clinton’s speech, Americans would be more inclined to blame Republicans for the mess we’re still in. But to be more confident about their own prospects? That’s peculiar.”

    Not if what they really learned from Clinton’s speech was patience, and that we shouldn’t be listening to everyone (i.e., Republicans) trying to convince us that Obama has failed. After all, if four years isn’t enough time to fix it, as Clinton tells us, then maybe we should allow ourselves to just relax and stop panicking.

    Ezra Klein’s model, showing that incumbents win even when the economy is weak as long as the main trends are positive, may be why the Republican unfortunate (for them) decision to ask that question of whether we’re better off than four years ago, seems to have backfired on them. People know that four years ago, Obama took over from his Republican predecessors an economy that was tanking, whereas since then, he turned it around.

    The other unfortunate decision (for the Republicans) to keep asking over the last several years, “When will Obama stop blaming Bush for his own problem?”, was also answered by Clinton, reminding voters of the obvious — that there is no statute of limitations on blaming a mess on the people who created it.

    But oddly, in spite of what Klein’s model shows, what the pundits have been saying all along — that if the economy is awful in the fall of 2012, Obama will lose the election — still holds. The fact is, the economy is not awful, it’s slowly on the mend, and polls show that voters are apparently aware of that after all.

    The question of “What moves what” (and your answer “Common sense does”) may also serve to explain the competing economic visions of the two candidates:

    One, the Democratic vision — that the government can stimulate the economy by spending money, to keep some government jobs from going away, and thus maybe even create new jobs, and maybe even some of those in the private sector — can be visualized as sort of a Rube Goldberg cause-and-effect machine: Make sure local government gets funds to keep teachers and cops and firefighters on the job; teachers thus have money to buy groceries, so local grocery bagger is not laid off; grocery bagger has money to pay rent, so landlord can pay mortgage; and so on.

    The other vision, the Republican one — that cutting taxes, especially on upper-level so-called “job creators”, and cutting government spending, and doing away with meddlesome regulations that hinder businesses from innovating, thusly somehow inspiring “confidence” in the strength of the economy, somehow inspiring job-creators to create jobs — cannot really be visualized without falling back on “faith” — faith that can’t be explained so much by science and theories of “cause-and-effect”. Believing in it pretty much requires a belief in what Paul Krugman calls the “confidence fairy”.

    Even though both candidates are practicing Christians, maybe the main difference between the two schools of economic thought is a difference between the secular and the spiritual. One side believes in science and the potential for human beings to solve their problems, and the other side believes in the mysteries of a universe ruled over by an intelligent designer who wields his invisible hand in unpredictable ways that are well beyond mere human comprehension.

    Rick

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