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Messages don't matter (much)


Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Alan Abramovitz round up some myths about midterm elections. Here's No. 3:

The president's message is crucial.

In fact, his message has little effect on midterm elections. If voters are unhappy with the president and the economy is bad, even a great communicator such as Reagan can do little to prevent significant losses by his party. The same is true for presidential advisers. Karl Rove looked like a genius in 2002 because Bush was still enjoying strong public approval in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Four years later, in 2006, Rove didn't look so smart when voters took out their dissatisfaction with the president and the Iraq war on Republican congressional candidates.

Of course, some individual seats will always be affected by the president's message. And in a year when the difference between Democrats losing 35 or 40 House seats is the difference between having Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Speaker John Boehner, every district matters. But overall, there is probably little that Obama can say or do in the next couple of months to change the broad outcome of this year's elections. The die has already been cast.

From political consultants to campaign reporters and communications directors, Washington is home to a vast industry of people whose livelihoods rely on the idea that "message" is a crucial component of winning elections. And it's true, of course, that if President Obama decides to focus his campaign advertising on a program of forced sterilization for law-abiding Christians, that would have an impact on the election. But when the choice is between the message crafted by political professionals and the changes to that message suggested by other political professionals, it's not going to make a big difference at the polls.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 16, 2010; 10:01 AM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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"And it's true, of course, that if President Obama decides to focus his campaign advertising on a program of forced sterilization for law-abiding Christians, that would have an impact on the election. But when the choice is between the message crafted by political professionals and the changes to that message suggested by other political professionals, it's not going to make a big difference at the polls."

If the President was seen as an FDR-like figure, leading a sustained all-out effort to do everything possible to put America back to work and to restore the middle class, that might make a significant difference in how the mid-term contests are framed.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 16, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Patrick, I think that goes to what the President can do versus what he can say, which i think is the point of this post. The major legislative achievements of this Congress have already happened. While they're major accomplishments, they haven't made the short-term economic outlook especially rosey (though yes, the stimulus bill appears to have pulled us back from the cliff).

What we're talking about now is spinning. Can the President spin his accomplishments into something voters will like and therefore reward his party, or will the Republicans be able to spin the legislative accomplishments negatively and make voters punish the Dems. Really, it doesn't appear like the spinning matters much. People seem to make their decisions (mostly, it seems on whether or not to vote rather than who to vote for) based on how the economy is doing on or near election day. Things aren't great with the economy and there's not much the President can do to change that before November.

As the article says, the President should likely spend his time trying to help tilt close elections where he can rather than trying to turn this into a win for the Dems writ large.

Posted by: MosBen | August 16, 2010 11:13 AM | Report abuse


I agree with what you say, but my point was not that there is much that the Democrats can do between now and November to boost the economy.

My point is that Obama and the Democrats have generally accepted the proposition that unemployment will remain high for a very long time, and that it will come down only very gradually, and that using additional fiscal stimulus is politically impossible. Had the President taken the position early on that high unemployment is completely unacceptable, and that he (like FDR) would make an ongoing series of efforts to fight it, the voters would see the choice between the parties in sharper contrast.

Most races in the Fall will hinge on local perception of the incumbent's overall performance ("all politics is local"), but to the extent that any close contests are determined by turnout and the enthusiasm of the base in each party, I think the Democrats are somewhat hampered by the fact that not only do we have a bad economy, but we also don't seem to have a crystal clear program from the party in power to bring about any rapid improvement.

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 16, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Is that something that the Dems could really do though? Other than the brief period where they 60 votes, which was consumed by the healthcare debate, what could President Obama do to push all these jobs-programs into existance? Should they have scrapped the healthcare debate altogether and spend the whole half of the first term on the economy? Made more speeches?

There are legitimate positions people can take on this, but it seems to me that most critics of the administration under-weight the reality of the 41 unanimous Republicans votes. I mean, in order to overcome the filibuster you've got to eventually be able to break it by bringing people over to your side from the filibustering side. From what I can tell, under the current rules it would be basically impossible to break the Republican filibusters.

Posted by: MosBen | August 16, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse


I am not arguing that the Democrats should not have passed health care or any of their other legislative achievements. And I fully understand the difficulties posed by the obstructionist tactics of the 41 vote Senate minority.

I am just saying that if it appeared that the President and the Democratic party were making a constant series of efforts to bring down unemployment, even if those efforts were being thwarted by the minority, the voters might perceive the Dems as fighting for "the average Joe."

Instead, there is now a perception about the Democrats of a sense of resignation to a lengthy unemployment crisis and the sluggish GDP. And I think that perception is going to be unhelpful in November.

Paul Ryan pushes a roadmap to a balanced budget. I wish Obama had a clear "roadmap" to resolving unemployment and restoring prosperity to the American middle class. Those issues are what voters are concerned about, and it seems today that there is no clear Democratic message or plan other than "things will get better but we need to be patient."

I think this piece goes a bit "over the top," but it does speak to what a number of people feel about the missing sense of Democratic policy urgency on the economy:

Posted by: Patrick_M | August 16, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

The quote (and this post) really hides the ball with the phrase

"If voters are unhappy with the president"

Yes, big surprise, if voters are unhappy with the President he will have a difficult time spinning his way to victory. In other news, apparently the Pope may indeed be Catholic.

What's elided here is the relationship between the President's communication (or lack of it) and voters' happiness with his performance. To wit, if Obama had been out there constantly spinning a picture of himself trying valiantly to help workers and being obstructed by an opposition monolithically devoted to inaction, would he be receiving so much blame for the lack of economic recovery?

Posted by: bjrubble | August 16, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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