McCain is not running a bad campaign

One of the major themes of my media class is that political journalists constantly miss and overlook large, contextual factors in order to try and explain polling results, etc., with whatever the latest campaign event is.  Much like the fact that economic journalists always provide some reason the market went up or down instead of just being honest, i.e., day-to-day variations are almost entirely random (recent days withstanding, of course).  Think back, and ask yourself if you have ever heard/seen a losing candidate praised for the quality of their campaign.  Nope.  From the perspective of most political journalists, if a candidate is losing, it must be the inferior campaign.  What we can state pretty confidently from Political Science research, though, is that, for the most part, campaigns only make a difference at the margins. 

Barring some major “game-changing” event in the next couple weeks, John McCain is going to lose this election.  He is going to lose not because he needs a coherent message, has made strategic errors, is too negative, or whatever, he is going to lose because he is the nominee of the incumbent presidential party when that incumbent president has record low approval and an absolutely overwhelming majority of the public thinks the country is on the wrong track.  Throw in the fact that people are far and away most worried about the economy– an issue which tends to generically favor Democrats– and the larger political context is totally against John McCain.  He could very well run the perfect campaign and still lose. 

So, a short-hand for political journalists who get it versus those who don't.  Are they explaining John McCain's huge deficit in the polls by campaign events or the political context.  Of course, few get it any better than Ezra Klein (which is why is one of my two favorite sources for political analysis).  He had a nice Op-Ed this weekend on undecided voters that addressed a lot of this.  Some highlights:

It's a
bit odd that we give the Undecided Voter such a privileged place in
American elections. Because from a civic standpoint, few creatures are
as contemptible. This election has dominated every form of American
news media for the better part of two years. Newspapers, magazines,
networks, cable, radio, blogs, people on street corners with signs —
it's really been rather hard to miss. Further, it pits two extremely
different candidates against each other. Whether your metric is age,
ideology, temperament, race, funding sources, healthcare plans or Iraq
strategies, it would be hard to imagine two men presenting a starker

But despite this, the Undecided Voter wakes up
each morning and says, in effect, “I dunno.” And the political system
panders to him….
In their paper, “Swing Voters? Hah!” political scientists Adam Clymer
and Ken Winneg amassed substantial data suggesting that very few
undecided voters are truly indecisive. Examining the 2004 election,
Clymer and Winneg found that even the most hard-core of undecided
voters were fairly predictable.

They asked the 4% of their
sample that claimed to be undecided to rate the two candidates in early
October. When they went back to the same people after the election,
more than 80% had in fact voted for whichever candidate they'd rated
most highly a month earlier.

But campaigns need something to do in September and October….

And here's the key Political Science point:

Campbell concludes by quoting Paul Lazarsfeld, a political scientist
from the 1940s who argued that campaigns are essentially over before
they have begun. The outcomes are structural — they are decided by
events and party identification and satisfaction with the incumbent and
other predictable indicators. Campaigns, he said, are “like the
chemical bath which develops a photograph. The chemical influence is
necessary to bring out the picture, but only the picture pre-structured
on the plate can come out.”

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: