I said recently that Republicans don’t appear to read political scientists on the subject of the effect of the economy on elections. But I’ve always suspected that sometime in the 1990s Republicans did read Richard Brody’s classic article about the “rally effect” — in which he found that “rally around the flag” effects depend on the reaction of the out-party, not (for example) whether the event in question is successful or not. If the out-party immediately criticizes the president, then he doesn’t get a bump in his approval ratings; if they support him or stay quiet, then there’s a positive bounce.

So if you’re the out-party, always attack, right? That might be what was going through the minds of Mitt Romney and his campaign last night and this morning, and — I speak here purely in terms of electoral politics, nothing more — that’s not a terrible instinct, based on the research.

But: why don’t out-party politicians simply always attack the president on everything? Ah, that’s a good question, and one that Team Romney might have asked itself before it jumped. The main reason is paradoxical, in a fun way. Out-party politicians often hesitate to attack during a foreign policy crisis because they’re afraid that they’ll be branded partisan during a time of national unity, for one thing. Those potential attacks might be unfair — as Democrats during the Bush years correctly said, it’s patriotic to dissent if you believe that the nation’s policy is wrong — but nevertheless, politicians must reckon with a national political culture that sometimes (and not entirely predictably) can turn against partisanship. The paradox part is that out-party politicians may refrain from attacking out of fear that the president’s handling of the event will prove wildly popular, when it’s the restraint from normal partisan attacks which actually signals to voters that the president did the correct thing and therefore makes the president’s actions wildly popular.

That’s one reason. The other reason is that out-party politicians are operating, usually, at a severe information deficit. Indeed: during events such as those in Libya and Egypt, the president himself often doesn’t know what’s happening; a campaign relying on CNN or, I don’t know, its twitter feed maybe, is even more apt to get things wrong. And while no politician wants to be exposed as not knowing what he or she is talking about, presumably that’s an even greater caution flag for a presidential candidate. Especially one without conventional foreign policy and national security credentials.

(Once again: this is all just about electoral-type politics and motivations. It’s of course possible that out-party politicians might support the president because they believe that it’s patriotic to do so during a crisis, or because they actually do support what the president is doing, and attacks could be because they really do believe the president has erred. Those things can happen! But they’re beyond the scope of this post).

At any rate: none of this has much to do with whether Romney made the best choices last night and this morning, or whether the way he carried out his attack on Obama was well-done. I wrote a little about it over at PP, so there’s more there. Here, I’m just thinking about the incentives that play into what he might be thinking.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

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