Friday, January 07, 2011

Election 2010: How marginal was the messaging?

Today Brendan Nyhan hammers home his signature theme: presidents don't move public opinion by speechifying.  He has been relentless about this for years. Reagan couldn't move the public to support the Contras; Bush couldn't do it for social security privatization; and Obama didn't do it with his Sept. '09 speech promoting health care reform.

A natural corollary is that elections are determined mainly by structural factors: the state of the economy, the number of seats the in-party has to defend, the proportion of those seats that are in the opposing party's traditional territory, etc.. On the eve of the last election, Nyhan had a memorable post cataloging every oft-recited narrative about Obama's imagined failures of messaging or strategy, with links to past posts debunking most of them.

As it turned out, the Republicans out-performed the structural models, the most commonly cited of which, by Douglas Hibbs, forecast a gain of about 45 seats. Why?  Aspects of the current economic woe that the model could not capture?  Extraordinary GOP messaging that maximized the structural advantage? 

On November 11, Nyhan and colleagues Eric McGhee and John Sides published an Election Postmortem reporting some preliminary numbers crunching. No dominant explanation emerged.The Tea Party's impact seems to have been marginal. Money was not decisive. Structural factors explained much, but not the size of the victory margin.

The authors did find one factor, though, that raises more questions than it answers, and that I found astonishing on its face: that most House Democrats paid dearly for every 'yes' vote they cast on major legislation.  The writeup of this finding should be digested in full:

Republican candidates and supporters were particularly critical of several policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. First was the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, which was enacted under President Bush in 2008 with the support of Obama (who was then the Democratic nominee). After Obama took office, House Democrats passed the stimulus package, the cap-and-trade bill, and, most (in)famously, health care reform (the first and third were enacted into law, while the second died in the Senate). Voters sometimes hold representatives accountable for their roll call votes, punishing those whose voting records are ideologically out of step with their districts. Did this happen?

We counted the number of these measures supported by each Democratic incumbent and then estimated the effect of this support on their election conditional on the partisanship of the member’s district (controlling for other factors). The simple answer: these roll call votes mattered. A lot. A Democratic incumbent in the average district represented by Democratic incumbents actually lost about two-thirds of a percentage point for every yes vote. Democrats in the least Democratic districts, such as Chet Edwards of Texas or Gene Taylor of Mississippi, lost about 4 percent for every yes vote. Does that mean poor Chet lost sixteen points on roll call votes alone? No, because he wasn’t a big supporter of Obama’s agenda. But he did vote for both TARP and the stimulus. In fact, virtually every Democratic incumbent on the ballot supported at least one of these four bills. That support was costly.

Using our statistical model, we simulated what would have happened if every losing Democratic incumbent had not supported any of these bills. The results are dramatic: the Democrats would have gained back 32 seats, enough to retain control of the House. The simulation involves some uncertainty, so we can’t be sure that voting differently on these issues would have guaranteed a retained majority, but clearly the Democrats would have lost significantly fewer seats.

Of course, there were almost no Democratic incumbents running for reelection who voted against all four bills. If we just make the vulnerable Democrats vote no on one more of the four bills than they actually did, the gain for Democrats is only twelve seats, not 32.
The political toxicity of these four bills is hard to fathom. Say what you like about the execution of TARP or the size or composition of the stimulus: together they prevented a full-scale depression. Cap-and-trade and the basic architecture of the Patient Protection Act are both policies with Republican pedigrees; stimulus in the face of recession has long been in the bipartisan toolkit; and TARP was of course initiated by the Bush administration -- begged for on bended knee by a weeping Republican treasury secretary.  Yet the GOP, aided by an economy that wouldn't get substantially better after it bottomed out, managed to transmute these essentially centrist policies into political poison. What does that suggest about the interplay of structural factors and messaging?

It seems to me that either a) the fact that voters punish the in-party when the economy is down means that they will take a negative view of any legislation the in-party passes, even if it manifestly helped the economy, or b) the GOP did an extraordinarily effective job defining those four pieces of legislation and the Democrats an equally poor job defending them, or c) both.*

c) would seem to be right  almost by definition; the question is the degree to which messaging matters. Political scientists are fond of saying it matters "at the margins." In this case, I suspect the margins were those of a bored high school student assigned to write a five-page paper -- very wide.

I can't shake the perception, mirage though it may be, that the White House and Democrats failed to effectively counter the GOP's relentless lying about these four bills, all which could have reasonably represented mainstream Republican thinking in the fairly recent past. At a bare minimum, can the White House not have been expected to ensure that more than 10% of Americans realized that the Recovery Act had cut their taxes? Obama himself has suggested that he and his administration didn't devote enough energy to messaging. Either he's fallen prey to the general illusion, or that confession is just a classic case of confessing to an admirable flaw, or he's right.

I feel the force of Rick Perlstein's lament: we live in a mendocracy, and the administration let the lies stick. Maybe no message gets through a 10% unemployment fog. But for the moment I'm stuck with a split-screen view.

* I'm leaving out of the equation the hypothesis that a much larger stimulus or a stronger push from fall 2009 for further job-generating measures would have had a major impact on the economy and so on the election results. That may well be -- the question here is narrowed to the impact of messaging.

1 comment:

  1. I think the answer above is b, not c. In my opinion, people were only led to believe certain untruths about the economy and these bills, but weren't necessarily going to feel that way by default.

    For the Democratic case to be made truthfully and honestly on these issues often requires a rather complicated message, one that mostly only economists and a handful of elected Democrats even understand thoroughly enough to lay out effectively. They did so poorly in getting these arguments out that even more non-partisan figures in the media didn't know it well enough to offer it as an argument in their debates/discussions.

    I think maybe they needed to get together to write a definitive explanation of their policies and the economy, something each congressman could reference and point to for answers, and something that the media pundits would be forced to examine carefully and understand. It's basically what Republicans do, getting every Republican to repeat the same talking points. But instead, it seemed like every Democrat was on their own to construct their own message.