A preference cascade in public opinion, or what is sometimes called an information cascade (Sunstein and Kuran build on the concept with their idea of an “availability cascade” with respect to the popularization of “novel” ideas), is an inflection point in public perceptions (in this case, of presidential candidate Mitt Romney) whereby a shift in public opinion builds on and reinforces itself…leading to a major and durable shift in public opinion. There is growing evidence that we may be witnessing a preference cascade in the 2012 presidential election. The idea here is that the unknown quantity in the 2012 presidential election was Mitt Romney — was he a viable president? Team Obama spent the summer (and some 150 million dollars) painting a portrait of Mitt Romney to the contrary — a cold, politically inastute, corrupt vulture capitalist with radical designs on the welfare state and a set of policies designed to cater to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. However, one of the reasons most of the histrionics about campaign finance and political advertising is overblown is that voters, even low-information voters, discount information from partisan sources. That, of course, doesn’t mean they ignore it…and in a vaccum such information can sway voter opinion. But in a competition between political advertising vs. political news, the later has more credibility and hence is a more powerful informational trigger.
The first debate of the presidential campaign provided just such an opportunity for voters to view the candidates (or to witness the candidates in action through the filiter of media coverage), and given the near universal opinion that Romney won the debate going away, it constitutes a political information data point that had the potential to exert real influence over the course of this election. Not necessarily because the conventional wisdom is that Romney won (although that helps), but because of how he won — passing the “presidential” threshold test and contrasting the “real” Mitt with the Obama campaign’s caricature of him in political advertising. Aiding this process was the fact that the first presidential debate came at a time when low-information, undecided voters were just beginning to pay attention to the race. But while this makes a neat anecdotal story, what evidence is there that the Romney public opinion surge is real and durable rather than a mere “bump” from the favorable coverage of his first debate performance? The most significant evidence has been the fact that Romney’s lead (Mitt-mentum) has not only persisted through the VP debate, but has also continued to build. In other words, Romney has been gaining in the polls even into this week…a day before the second debate. The fundamentals of the US economy have always meant that Obama would be a weak incumbent…and his persistent inability to get within range of 50% support for his re-election (with a few exceptions) has afforded Romney the opportunity to mount a competitive challenge. If this is a preference cascade, then it bodes very ill for Obama’s reelection prospects. With opinion on Obama’s first term already baked in, the singular variable in the election was opinion on Romney. If Obama’s efforts to make Romney toxic have failed, then odds are we will inaugurate a new president in 2013. In my next post, I will discuss the public opinion evidence which suggests that there has been an inflection point in the race and a preference cascade in favor of Mitt Romney.