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More Reflections on the Fundamentals

- November 5, 2008

In response to my earlier post, Mike3550 leaves this thoughtful comment:

bq. I am sympathetic to the argument that fundamentals help decide elections and that campaigns are blown out of proportion by journalists because they are a) exciting and b) pay their bills.

bq. That being said, I also think that the reaction against the pendulum can swing too far the other way to basically say campaigns don’t matter at all. I should note that part of perspective might be due to my perspective as a sociologist in contrast to political science. However, I think that there are two ways Obama’s campaign mattered:

bq. 1. Without the incredible organization, strategy, and campaign skills there is no way that Obama would have gotten out of the primary. Now, I know that the “campaigns don’t matter” really is talking about the two-party general election. However, by simply saying “campaigns don’t matter” I think that it covers up how spectacularly Obama played all of his cards to even end up in the general.

bq. 2. Second, the fact that Obama–as a black man–was able to pull within the margin of a usual victory speaks to the ability of his campaign skills. Again, coming from a sociological perspective, race is so incredibly salient in so many aspects of our lives as Americans, it is astounding that so many Americans were willing to put those sentiments aside and vote for a black man. I suspect that this is what you might mean by “It may be that the campaign helped move voters in line with the outcome that the fundamentals predict” — but I think that understates how amazing Obama’s accomplishment to be the first African American President really is.

There are many good points here. Regarding the first one, campaigns are definitely more likely to matter in elections when people’s preferences are weaker (primaries, down-ballot races) and when cues like party identification aren’t available (primaries). In the Democratic primaries, I agree that, without a solid organization, Obama would not have won as many delegates, and given the narrow margin that separated him and Hillary Clinton, this could have been crucial. With regard to the primaries, however, it’s also true that events themselves serve as signals, creating momentum behind candidates. Certainly Iowa helped do that for Obama. So organization helps win caucuses or primaries, but then early caucus or primary victories have downstream effects, apart from any organizational prowess.

Mike’s second point also strikes me as quite plausible. Obama’s campaign may have “tamped down” the potential impact of racial prejudice, which in turn could have increased his margin of victory. Fundamentally, I do believe in the existence of campaign effects on voters and, potentially, outcomes. (It was the subject of my dissertation, in fact.) But I feel compelled to emphasize the fundamentals for three reasons:

* As Mike suggests, they get short shrift. There is too much fixation on every jot and tittle of the campaign. Even political scientists who believe that “campaigns matter” are careful to note their limits. But casual observers of politics are often not so careful. I feel compelled to hold up one end of the Hegelian dialectic, as it were.

* The focus on fundamentals is based on sound theories. Forecasting models are not just statistical self-gratification for dorks. The relationship between the state of the economy and the vote for the incumbent party derives from a simple cognitive shortcut — punish the in-party when times are bad, and reward them when times are good. To be sure, many voters don’t rely on this shortcut. Strong partisans are virtually immune from these considerations because they can’t imagine that their party is responsible for bad times, or that the other party deserves credit for good times. (See, e.g., this paper by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels.) But voters with weaker opinions — political independents, for example — are more influenced by the fundamentals.

* To identify when, how, and for whom campaigns matter is actually quite difficult. It takes some very good data and some painstaking work. (I’ve discussed some of that work here.) Most casual commentary about campaign effects reasons from weak data or no data at all. It’s not that some of that commentary won’t prove true. It could. Nevertheless, we simply won’t know for a while. If medical researchers approached their field the way many political commentators approach campaign effects, the logic would go something like this: “Fewer Americans reported having headaches this year than 4 years ago. Clearly, this fall’s advertising campaign for Advil worked.”

To be clear: I absolutely do not mean to downplay the historical significance of Obama’s victory. Electing an African-American as president is a tremendous milestone in our long and tentative progress toward racial equality and tolerance. But whether we can attribute his victory to campaign strategy — his or McCain’s — is a far more difficult question to answer.