The Seemingly Constant Kerfuffles of Election 2012

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What if most of the effort put into winning news cycles is pointless or even counterproductive?



In 2009, The Annual Review of Political Science published the article "Negative Campaigning." Its authors, Professors Richard R. Lau and Ivy Brown Rovner, surveyed scholarly work on negative advertisements in political campaigns. They found that attacking a political opponent is likely to result in voters evaluating him or her less favorably, but that the attacker is at risk of being thought of less favorably too. "If anything, this backlash effect appears to be a bit stronger and more consistent than lowering evaluations of the target of the attacks," the scholars wrote. "On balance, then, there is simply no support in the scientific literature for the hypothesis that negative campaigns are any more effective than any other type of campaign strategy."

The pervasiveness of attack ads are evidence enough that candidates and campaign strategists disagree. Perhaps they're right. Maybe they're wrong. The fact that neither judgment can be proven correct is worth keeping in mind while pondering the latest from David Brooks, who has lately wrestled with how to conceive of presidential campaigns. Are they like a courtship where candidates try to woo voters? Or like American Idol, where they're trying to wow the audience with their talents and likability? Or perhaps its like a plumber bidding for a job. "Voters aren't really looking to fall in love with the guy," Brooks writes. "They just want someone who will fix the pipes. The candidate's job is to list the three or four things he would do if elected."

For Brooks, a campaign is a bit like all of those things. 


So far, though, the 2012 presidential campaign is fitting into none of these categories. It's being organized according to a different metaphor. This year, both organizations seem to visualize the campaign as a boxing match or a gang fight. Whichever side can hit the other side harder will somehow get awarded the champion's belt.

...Both campaigns have developed contempt for their opponent, justifying their belief that everything, then, is permitted. In both campaigns, you can see the war-room mentality developing early. Attention spans shrink to a point. Gone is much awareness of the world outside the campaign. All focus is on the news blip of the moment -- answering volley for volley. If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they throw a bomb, you throw two. Both sides are extraordinarily willing to flout respectability to show that they are tough enough to bare the knuckles.

You needn't agree that both sides are doing this in equal measure to grant that attack politics is widespread. Campaigns engage in it. So do pundits. What interests me aren't the presence of official attack ads so much as the fact that Team Red and Team Blue are fighting for every news cycle. Were I an Obama strategist, I'd counsel the candidate to attack Mitt Romney for his many flip flops and his dearth of foreign policy experience at strategic moments during the campaign. And were I a Romney strategist, I'd urge him to attack Obama for the failing economy, wasted stimulus funds, and the gulf between his '08 rhetoric and the way that he's governed.

But does "winning" individual news cycles matter?

For the most part, I am dubious. There are certain moments in a campaign -- the hours surrounding a presidential debate, immediately following a major gaffe -- when spin could conceivably "change the narrative." But I'm increasingly convinced that most time spent trying to win news cycles is wasted. Well, that isn't quite right. For content providers like talk radio hosts, cable tv personalities, and Internet pundits, focusing on the battle of the moment keeps the core audience of political junkies coming back. But it seems plausible to me that fighting for news cycles is counterproductive for those trying to actually affect the outcome of a presidential race.

Opportunity cost is the reason.

There are a lot of people who'd like to see Mitt Romney win, from paid personnel on his campaign staff to members of political organizations like the Tea Party to regular media boosters like Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post to conservative bloggers who are unaffiliated with any press outlet. There is still a finite amount of public attention that they can command, especially for the majority of voters who aren't political junkies. Given that reality, it always strikes me as a foolish waste of time when so many Romney partisans spend days on end making sure everyone knows, for example, that Obama ate dog when he was a kid living in Indonesia.

If Romney wins the election, it's going to be because he convinced enough voters of things like, "I'll preside over a better economy than Obama is able to do" or "Obama wasted a lot of your money." Or maybe some other line of attack. But not, "Obama ate dog one time." Or "Anyone would've ordered the bin Laden raid." Or to go back in time a bit, "Obama is on an apology tour."

Yet think of how much time Obama opponents have spent on those stories. (Or birtherism, for that matter.)

There are many possible critiques of Obama's economic stewardship. Making them in a way that persuades some swing voters is no easy task, especially given how little attention to politics a lot of them pay. It seems to me that partisans enjoy formulating zingers and the feeling of winning news cycles and vicious attacks on any subject whatever, and so that's what they do, telling themselves it's all in service of eventual victory. But maybe it's just widespread indiscipline.

I couldn't say if the Obama campaign is more strategic or less inclined to be drawn into tussles. It's probably too early to tell. (I very much doubt that they're more high-minded.) But I do think the asymmetry between right and left-leaning media matters. Think Progress and Media Matters engage in a lot of day to day silliness, but among liberals it's mainstream outlets that are most influential. On the right, the fact that conservative insights are sometimes overlooked in the mainstream media makes sustained critiques pitched at the center more important. But rather than build alternative media outlets to persuade, the right has focused on pandering to its base. It's talk radio, Fox News, The Blaze, Breitbart.com and others who are most influential.

I'm no expert in political strategy. Maybe Breitbart.com, Rush Limbaugh and Matthew Continetti know better than me what's effective. Given the degree to which they've all bought into a constantly aggrieved, adversarial style of advocacy, you'd think they'd want better proof than anyone has offered that their methodology actually works. As I've pointed out before, the Reagan Revolution and the Gingrich House takeover predated the explosion of conservative media that has characterized the Fox News / Internet era. As yet, however, the media explosion hasn't translated into policy successes for the right. Perhaps they're doing it all wrong. Perhaps most of what Media Matters publishes is totally pointless. Can anyone prove otherwise?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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