Mitt Romney’s Problems: Elite Defection
JOHN SIDES, a political-science professor at George Washington University, thinks Mitt Romney’s embarrassing fund-raiser video is unlikely to affect the race much. He adduces two graphs that show that in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s “cling to guns” comment in 2008, basically nothing happened. This year, meanwhile, Mr Obama’s “private sector is doing fine” and “you didn’t build that” gaffes had no discernible effect in the polls, and Mitt Romney’s comments last week on the Libya attacks don’t seemed to have stopped his recovery in the aftermath of the Democratic convention. Mr Sides concludes:
The best case for saying that “gaffes matter” is that actual voters are persuaded to change their minds because of the gaffes. If they don’t, then it’s tough to argue that “gaffes” are really “game-changers.” And, in fact, usually voters don’t change their minds.
I have a love-hate relationship with Mr Sides’ commentary. In general, he argues that political campaigns and candidates’ personalities don’t matter anywhere near as much as people think they do, or as the media says they do. This is no doubt true. And as a political scientist, Mr Sides exercises a commendable influence in insisting that claims of this sort be grounded in evidence.
But I’m not a political scientist, and I can’t help but think this is a somewhat bigger deal than Mr Sides thinks it is. Part of the reason I can’t help but think that is that I just spent a few weeks covering another election that also turned out to be a close contest between left and right: the Dutch elections last Wednesday (covered by my colleague here), in which the centre-right Liberals beat the centre-left Labour Party by about 27% to 25% in one of the most unpredictable and fast-changing races political observers had ever seen. And the thing about that campaign was that it was almost entirely about the campaign and the candidates. Obviously the Dutch and American elections are completely different because of the multi-party structure in the Netherlands. But nonetheless, when you watch an election where the campaign and the media coverage determine everything, it pushes those elements to the foreground and makes you think about how they influence American presidential elections, even if they aren’t as decisive.