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.
Despite the unemployment rate dropping three tenths of a point in the latest jobs report (to 7.8 from 8.1), the economy only added just over 100,000 jobs…not enough to keep up with population growth. The rate drop is a consequence of a mid-year adjustment and the record-low workforce participation rate, as you can see in the second graph below.
Gallup’s tracking poll over the last month shows that Obama’s post-convention bounce has entirely dissapated and the race stands even, as this figure demonstrates:
Gallup’s tracking poll is of registered voters, a class of sample more likely to favor a Democrat than a likely voter sample. So it may be that Romney would be slightly ahead if Gallup was using a likely voter screen. Either way, the race is essentially a toss-up with a little more than a month to go until the election. On to the debates…D.GOOCH
A gaggle of links and tidbits from the political world recently…
- The Chick-fil-a kerfluffle is an interesting entry in the Culture Wars. There is no question that society has become more tolerant of gays and gay lifestyle choices (marriage, civil unions, adoption, etc.) over the past thirty years. But the division over the pro-marriage stance of the Chick-fil-a founder has been, on the one hand, government officials expressing (to one degree or another) the view that Chick-fil-a is unwelcome in their towns/cities *because* of Dan Cathy’s position on gay marriage, versus those who view such as an infringement on free speech and liberty. Many on the Left and Right have spoken out against mayors like Rham Emmanuel (Chicago) who have used strongly worded language hinting they might use their political offices to deny Chick-fil-a the right to locate there. Where ever you stand on the issue, it seems to have backfired on the anti-Chick folks. It appears the “buycott” organized by folks like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee resulted in record sales for Chick-fil-a.
- Mitt Romney recently completed a tour over seas. Many in the media have panned his visit, honing in particularly on the “gaffe” where Romney criticized the London Olympics while being in London. However, I’m pretty sure it is unlikely to have any impact on the presidential race. As far as I know, Londoners don’t get to vote in US presidential elections. Scott Conroy shares my doubts.
- In a resounding victory for the Tea Party (whose demise seems to have been greatly exaggerated), Ted Cruz defeated David Dewhurst for the Republican nomination in Texas for the US senate seat being vacated by Kay Baily Hutchinson. Cruz, as a Latino-American, is likely to be a rising star in the Republican ranks, much like Marco Rubio. He will also contribute to the further political polarization of the Congress, shifting the Republican caucus further Right. Ed Kilgore has Left-Center commentary on the Cruz victory over at the New Republic.
The below AEI graph illustrates the troubled economic waters that President Obama’s reelection efforts are lost in.
As is apparent from the graph, consumer confidence is strongly correlated with an incumbent president winning reelection. Note that the two incumbent losses came when consumer confidence was below 75, while re-elections were all above 85. Obama is likely to be well below 70 when it comes to November. This portends doom for his reelection efforts.
Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others. I do not add ‘within the limits of the law’ because law is often but the tyrant’s will, and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.
- Thomas Jefferson
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered… deeply, …finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
- George Washington
And have some fun. But, please, please, PLEASE, use your head. And by that, I don’t mean “as-a-cool-place-to-shoot-fireworks.”
Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.
Why doesn’t the median voter truly rule American Elections, as the classic Downsian model predicts? While uncertainty, intensity, abstentions, alienation, and other factors certainly play a part in the failure of American elections to converge on the median voter, less noticed (but perhaps more important than all other factors combined) is that the issue dimension is orthogonal to a second determinant of elections: valence. Valence is just a fancy word for “likeability.” Candidates well-liked by voters (on a host of non-political factors like appearance, dress, personality, character, charm, etc.) can ‘afford’ to diverge from the median positions because voters will discount those heresies in favor of their favorable judgement of the candidate’s personality.
Obama’s best asset this fall is likely to be his valence advantage over Romney. As this Gallup poll demonstrates, Obama has a significant edge on the valence dimension over Romney going into the election. While we might expect this to close as Romney consolidates his base and moves into the general election phase of his campaign, it is likely to remain a significant Obama advantage over Romney…and indeed could be the key to his relection.
With that in mind, the recent article by Robert Costa on National Review Online floating the possibility of a Mike Huckabee VP nod is particularly interesting. While other VP choices provide swing state, Tea party cred, block vote, and other traditional advantages in considering a VP selection, few have the potential to match Huckabee in sheer likability. His friendly affect and demeanor and good sense of humor has been particularly useful in his radio and TV gigs and was a big factor (in addition to his evangelical cred) in his solid run in the 2008 presidential primaries. The article touches on this asset, but really it is Huckabee’s best case as a VP choice. He has the potential to shore up Romney’s biggest weakness versus Obama in 2012…at least to the extent a VP candidate can have any effect.
I’ve been thinking about the regularity of presidential incumbents winning re-election juxtaposed with the lackluster Republican primary field (despite a weak economy and a seemingly vulnerable incumbent). I’m wondering why the Republicans didn’t find a better candidate than Mitt Romney. It isn’t as if they were lacking a slate of experienced Republican executives with legitimate cross-appeal to the Republican tripod (social, economic, national security conservatives). Is this regularity a function of challenger quality? Were Walter Mondale, Mike Dukakis, Bob Dole, and John Kerry really the best candidates available at the time? Both Reagan and Clinton, the seeming exceptions on challenger quality, were not regarded as quality candidates by many at the time of their elections. Many big wigs sat out the 1992 challenge on the Democratic side (e.g. Mario Cumo). Reagan was regarded as an extremist, though he had come close in 1976 so he was certainly viable. Really Reagan is the only real exception I can point to in terms of candidate quality…and he faced a third party challenge from within his own party ranks.
My thought is that we might be seeing a bit of a selection-effect here. Quality presidential candidates for office know that a president is term-limited to two terms. So the potential challengers know they can run for an open seat in about five years…a relatively short time in terms of a political career. The conventional wisdom is that presidents win re-election due to valence factors, institutional office advantages, and public sentiment on structural factors such as the economy. But is the larger factor the selection-effect imposed by term limits? Would it disappear if we limited presidents to three terms? I’m not sure. But it has me wondering.
Donald M. Gooch is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government at Stephen F. Austin State University. He received his PhD in Political Science at MU-Columbia in 2009. Dr. Gooch is an expert in American politics, public law, research methods and public policy. His research agenda includes political polarization (mass, elite, institutional – i.e. USSC), state campaign finance, civic education, and issue voting. He is the Pre-Law advisor and faculty sponsor for Moot Court at SFA.