Recently I argued that GOP obsession with “vetting” Barack Obama, and with a variety of ill-fated attack lines, comes from two things: the divergence of incentives between the Romney campaign and what my brother calls the “movement conservative marketplace”; and, the closed information loop that makes it difficult for insiders to have any sense of how outsiders would see these attack lines.
As Romney rolled out yet another of these insipid, implausible campaign talking points, however, it occurs to me that there’s yet another reason that the GOP-aligned media makes it more likely that Romney will do these sorts of things, even if they don’t actually move voters. I was thinking earlier that it was a case of the Republican press influencing the campaign: they keep talking about something, and Romney feels pressure to start talking about it too. But there’s a laziness to all of this too, which is also a function of how easily influenced Fox News and the rest of them are. In the old days, a campaign would come up with a theme or a line-of-the-day, and then would have to work really hard to insert it into the (neutral) media. Oh, you could do it, but it took message discipline and some real effort.
But that’s not true with campaigns right now and the partisan press — and no question but that it’s far more developed on the Republican side, although it certainly exists on both sides. All Romney’s campaign has to do is pull out a sentence and call it a gaffe, and it instantly becomes one. It blows up on twitter, it goes straight to Fox News and most of the conservative radio shows…it’s all over the place. Indeed, if it’s in those places, it’s also going to be in Politico and Buzzfeed, too. So on the one hand, it must encourage laziness to know that all you have to do is come up with something vaguely appropriate to movement conservatives in order to get that effect; on the other hand, it must just feel as if you’re making something happen when you do it. And the more it hits the sort of things that the GOP-aligned media loves, the more you get the immediate effect. Really, for campaign operatives, it must be incredibly temping to do it.
There are even internal bureaucratic incentives. After all, it’s never easy to measure whether some campaign line moved voters, but it’s easy to measure how much it resonated in the press. And the more it appeals to movement conservatives in the media, the more you’ll get that “hit.” So if you’re in the Romney press office, it’s just incredibly easy to monitor the president’s speeches, pull out a “gaffe,” turn it into a firestorm, and show your bosses that you’ve been productive. Sure, it might blow over in 24 hours without actually having any effect at all on voters, but who is going to point that out…in the midst of a campaign, who will even know?
Such incentives exist when you’re trying to directly score with the neutral press, too, but it’s a whole lot harder, and so presumably there’s more of an incentive to work hard at it — and to save the effort for the ones you really think will work (on voters).
And even worse: campaign professionals within the nominee’s candidacy may well find the prospect of working for Fox News a lot more appealing than either working in the White House or returning to the campaign trail with the next candidate — and so pleasing the conservative-aligned media might be at least compete on even terms with winning the election as a personal career incentive for top campaign staffers.
So overall you have several institutional incentives all pushing Republican presidential campaigns towards, well, mediocrity. There’s pressure from the movement conservative marketplace to create “products” (as David S. Bernstein puts it) that can be sold to the marks who they make money off of instead of points that will push swing voters; there’s the danger of a closed information feedback loop which makes it harder for the campaigns to even see those swing voters; and there’s the personal rush and career rewards that come creating and placing flaps in the press, whether they help the campaign or not.
[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]