Between Campaign Hysteria and Indifference

Kevin Drum had a fine if somewhat disrespectful riposte today to a political scientist who dismissed the attacks on Romney record at Bain Capital on grounds that in a polarized electorate a large majority of voters have already made up their minds:

Why do people say stuff like this? Of course the electorate is highly polarized. Of course 70% of voters have already made up their minds. So what? Campaign ads aren’t aimed at these people. They’re aimed at the small segment of the population that’s persuadable, just like every advertisement for every product in history. That’s not even Political Science 101. It’s more like junior high school level stuff.

Please, let’s all stop spouting this nonsense as if it were something profound. It’s not. All mass advertising is mostly wasted because the vast majority of the audience has no interest in the product for one reason or another. But some of the audience does. That’s the target. The fact that the target is far, far less than 100% of the viewers is news to no one.

I’d go a bit further and suggest that one of the most maddening things about political talk these days is the constant false choice we are being presented between academics (reinforced this cycle by Republican bloviators who want to promote the idea that economic indicators have predetermined a GOP victory) saying nothing in the campaign matters and reporters and/or “opinion journalists” saying (or at least acting as though) everything matters.

The main task of political analysis (the word for what I like to think I’m doing when I’m not just immediately reacting to news) is to figure out those intersections of “fundamentals” and “campaign events” that interact between each other in ways that tangibly affect persuadable voters and turnout patterns. The Bain attacks on Romney matter, I suspect, not because they represent some day or week in which Team Obama “beat” Team Romney or generated more Tweets, but because they are reinforcing strategic trends that affect how persuadable and marginal voters are processing such real-world events as economic trends and the choices represented by the two major-party candidates. Maybe my analysis is right and maybe it’s wrong, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting–and frankly, relevant to what we know about past elections–than a dialogue of the deaf in which one group of talkers is trying to prove the validity of some paper they published in 1991 and the other is trying to “win the news cycle.”

UPDATE: To commenter Handwaver, point well taken. I will not use the term “dialogue of the deaf” henceforth. And as you suggest, that’s not just because of a sensitivity to terms that might unnecessarily offend people, but also because it’s simply not an accurate term for an inability to communicate. Thanks for the reminder.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.