Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Gamble

I just finished the book, "The Gamble," something of a review of the 2012 Presidential election race from the point of view of political scientists. The authors, John Sides and Lyn Vavreck, have poured over all sorts of numbers and polls from the election cycle, and they came to a conclusion that surprised me quite a bit although it probably shouldn't have done so.

Very little happened during the race in terms of movement.

In other words, the authors could have made a very public guess in December 2011 on what the election would look like almost a year later, based on what the economy was doing at the time. They would have been less than a percentage point off.

In other words, all of those so-called big moments of 2012 really didn't do much in terms of the final outcome. Everything stayed more or less static until Election Day.

All of those ads that those of you in battleground states? The net effect was essentially zero. It's interesting to note that people tend to remember political ads for about a day, and then any slight bump quickly disappears - at least according to the evidence. 

The "47 percent" line from Romney and the "you didn't build that" line from Obama? Didn't have much of a long-term impact.

Obama's performance in the first debate? It gave Romney a small bump, but Obama did better in later debates and the effect evened out.

And so on. The "game-changing events" didn't have an effect for very long. People more or less knew who they were going to receive their vote, even most of the independents, and little changed from those views. If anything, the big events merely hardened the probables to definites.

That's not to say that the billions of dollars spent on the campaign were wasted. If one party had thrown a big party and not spent a dime, there would have been an impact on the final result. But the evidence for 2012 indicates that the two sides essentially cancelled each other out.

If you want to argue that Obama ran another brilliant campaign and that Romney was a poor nominee, be my guest. But the evidence indicates that both did about as well as could be expected. I have often wondered if another Republican politician could have done better as a candidate in 2012. If I'm reading the book correctly, the answer probably is no. A fringe candidate (I guess Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich might qualify) probably would have done a little worse. Romney was shown to be closer to the majority of the voters ideologically than Obama was, but enough people saw enough steady growth in the economy to be convinced not to change courses.

Who struck me as the "loser" in the book? Those who follow these elections closely for professional reasons. That includes those in the campaign business, such as the endless political strategists who offered public commentary. But it also included media commentators and many media outlets themselves, such as the all-news channels, who have a vested interest in making the election dramatic.You aren't going to get them to say that campaign tactics or perceived gaffes or news analysis doesn't affect voters.

Sides and Vavrick also do some tearing apart of commentators late in the book, when it comes to such things as "mandates." It sounds as if political types are so carried away by electoral victories that they assume everything on a political platform has received a ringing endorsement ... and then they remember that there are still arguments about all sorts of individual issues.

This is not the sort of book that is going to be a big seller, naturally. Political science books never are. There aren't many anecdotes here, which are always interesting to read after the fact. The resulting text comes off as dry. (Reviewer's note: I read a Kindle version of the book for early release in which the charts and tables did not translate to the format. I got the idea of the points from the text, but I'm sure it loses a little when read this way.)

It's certainly good to have such voices as part of the discussion, though. "The Gamble" offers some interesting conclusions about politics, and they are worth your attention if the subject is of interest.

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