The Little Things

The danger of following politics too closely is that little things can start to seem incredibly important, even though they’re not. For example, take today’s story in The Hill that “Defections by Senate Dems hamper Obama’s message on jobs,” which claims that “no” votes by a small minority of Democrats will “prevent [his] message from resonating with voters.” It’s just nonsense.

Let’s go through this carefully.

First, most people are partisans, and vote for the same party virtually every time. We’ll put those aside, however, and focus only on swing voters.

Those swing voters decide based on all sorts of things. There are probably at least a few people who are going to support Obama because of his foreign policy successes, including killing bin Laden; there are probably going to be a few people the other way, who oppose him because of ACA or some other policy.

The economy is certainly a very major factor for swing voters, but it does have to compete with other things.

Then, of the overall effects of the economy, we can divide them into those things the government can affect and those it cannot. Remember, the government doesn’t snap its fingers and the economy automatically jumps. Should Europe crash, it’s going to hurt the US economy, and there’s very little the US can do about it.

Out of the things that the US can affect, any particular portion of the policy-making process only affects some of them. So Congress and the president together create fiscal policy; the Fed (with perhaps some influence from the president) creates monetary policy; and other specifics may be regulatory or legislative or both.

Getting even narrower, we come to spin – spin about specific parts of all of that. We know that the campaign as a whole has relatively narrow effects; one particular portion of that (such as the president’s message on jobs) is going to be even narrower. Still, it’s certainly possible that a good pitch to voters on the economy will help around the margins, whatever else is going on.

Still with me? Note that the stray Democratic defections on the jobs bill still haven’t come up yet, but we’ve already accounted for almost everything that happens in elections. A double-dip recession would be devastating for Obama’s reelection chances; passing the jobs bill, assuming it worked as he believes it would, will help, although only somewhat. Sticking to a popular message on jobs is even less useful than actually creating jobs, but at least it’s something.

And now we get to Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, and any other Democrats who defect: the various ammunition parties have to undermine the other party’s message. It’s not just that “Ben Nelson disagrees” is a fairly weak countermessage, especially given that the president’s jobs pitch appears to be highly popular; it’s that there just isn’t much room remaining for the particular countermessage to matter a whole lot. In other words, Republicans are certainly going to have something to say against Obama’s claim that he has good ideas on jobs, so the question boils down to: of that small segment of the population who are open to having their votes influenced by Obama’s jobs message, how many of those who would not be convinced by whatever else Republicans would say will be convinced by the additional fact that Democrats were not unanimous on some of the Senate votes? It’s just not plausible that it could make much of a difference to a presidential election.

Of course, the president and Senate leaders might as well try to keep party discipline, even if it was completely irrelevant to who wins the White House next year, because there’s still a lot of legislative bargaining to come. And even if the things that the president can influence are small, he might as well do what he can within that. But for anyone analyzing what’s going on, it’s worth keeping some perspective. As political scientist Brendan Nyhan tweeted today: “No one is going to remember 2 Dem defections, but even if Dems were 100% united, the problem with Obama econ message is… the economy.”

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.