Where Campaigns Work Well

A lot of people are commenting on a NYT story yesterday about Barack Obama’s difficulties in Pennsylvania, with liberals picking up on and frustrated by the attitudes reported by a local Obama supporter who seemed to understand that Obama was getting blocked by Republicans, but nevertheless just wanted Obama to cut through all of that and just get things done. Greg Sargent has a nice item with a follow-up on the supporter; Kevin Drum comments, too, noting the skewed incentives involved in this kind of approach to the political system. Basically, their concern is that Republicans can deliberately ruin the country, but politically that will only hurt Obama.

I don’t want to minimize the problem, which I agree is to some extent real, but I’d also put a bit of context around it.

We’re now about eleven months out from the (general) election. Most people tune it out until, well, after the conventions, at any rate. And once they start paying attention, one of the things that campaigns are in fact very good at doing is giving people reasons for doing what they want to do anyway. That is, Obama supporters who at this point are inclined to vote for the president but upset about the economy or whatever are likely to express that as unease by saying, well, whatever comes to their minds, which might be all sorts of stuff. But once they start paying attention, you know what they’re apt to say? You got it — whatever the Obama ads are saying, and whatever the Obama surrogates are saying on their tightly disciplined appearances on every news show local and national, and whatever Obama himself is saying on the stump. Just as Republicans will wind up saying and believing whatever the GOP nominee is saying.

Most of us, most of the time, don’t really have explanations for what’s going on in the political world. Something is bad — war, gas prices, unemployment? We have plenty of stuff in our heads about it, but no systematic reason to favor one reason over another, and so what we say often winds up sounding, to professionals, as poorly thought out or confused. Ah, but then: the campaign comes, and the politicians and other opinion leaders we tune in to supply us with explanations, probably incorporating some of that “plenty of stuff” (but selectively, leaving out the parts that make the wrong side look good!). And we wind up not only believing it, but believing that we always believed it. Which, in a way, we sort of did, but in a more straightforward way we really didn’t.

Now, of course, there are real swing voters out there, and they might actually choose between the competing explanations that politicians are giving them during the campaign, although even there I suppose most of them decide first and come up with reasons later. But as far as partisans are concerned, the overwhelming majority of them are going to wind up back with their own party’s candidate, and the campaign will do an excellent job of teaching them to explain why they’re there.

[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.