Barack v. the Robot (Musings on Polls and Etch-a-Sketches)

Why isn't Obama doing better in the polls and did we just see a Kinsey Gaffe in the wild?

Andrew Sullivan wonders:

what does it say about Obama’s strength that he’s still polling only four or five points over this gaffe-prone robot?

Now, for those who just have returned from outer space, the “gaffe-prone robot” is Mitt Romney.

To answer the question, I would note the following (in no one particular order):

1.  The economy (which includes gas prices).

2.  There is a set percentage of the public that will vote Republican (and likewise Democratic) no matter what.  Indeed, I am not even sure what the max gap between a Rep and Dem would be these days.  The Obama-McCain gap was only 7 points and that was considered a huge victory.  Bush-Kerry was 3 points.

3.  The question is not in the context of an actual contest yet.  While voters can make a comparison from afar at the moment, the candidates have not fully engaged one another yet.  The numbers will shift once Romney is the actual nominee (they may even go up—although I have my doubts).

4.  Despite the fact that most of us political junkies have been paying attention to the 2012 campaign since 2008, most people (even likely voters) have hardly been paying all that much attention yet so the numbers are tenuous at best.

In other words, I am not sure that the current numbers say anything about either candidate as yet.

Regardless of all that, I do agree with Sullivan and Joe Klein that the Etch-a-Sketch sound bite matters.  Klein:

I’ve been thinking about this all night: Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch gaffe yesterday may go well beyond a momentary embarrassment and become a campaign-defining disaster, much as John Kerry’s “I voted for it before I voted against it” gaffe — which came at almost exactly the same point in that campaign, as Kerry locked down the nomination — was in 2004.

Indeed, I have thought something like this since I saw the clip yesterday.  It struck me as a Kinsey Gaffe (which Klein notes as well).  At a minimum it was the kind of thing that plays right into a prevailing stereotype of Romney.  To have a member of his staff seemingly confirm everyone’s suspicions is pretty big—and whether he meant it that way or not isn’t the issue.  Kerry, to go back to that example, had a point with the “I voted for it before I voted against it” bit insofar as legislators frequently vote for one version of legislation only to vote against another version later (and they may have legitimate reasons to do so).  But, Kerry was already being pegged as “flip-flopper” and he went off and provided a sound bite that confirmed it!  Likewise, it is assumed by some that Romney is a malleable pol who will say whatever is needed to win office.  And Fehrnstrom just confirmed it! (Of course, the exclamation points are there to underscore that both for Kerry an Romney’s proxy it doesn’t matter what they meant, but how it sounds).

As such, I have a somewhat different interpretation from my co-blogger, Doug Mataconis, insofar as I agree some of the focus on the Etch-a-Sketch itself may be a bit frivolous, the sound bite itself matters. There is, I will allow, a discount to be had, of course, that Kerry was the speaker in 2004 and a Romney functionary is the the current sound bite producer.

BTW:  I don’t think, that this can derail Romney’s nomination.  I do think that this theme (that Romney is a political chameleon) will have legs.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Perhaps I would think the Etch A Sketch comment mattered more if it had been made by the candidate himself. And if it had been made somewhere other than a program that airs on CNN between 5-7am that next to nobody watches.

    More seriously, as I said in my post, the fact that the political media is focusing on 7 seconds out of a 30 second clip that was part of an interview that lasted more than 5 minutes demonstrates quite clearly just how trivial our political culture has become

  2. An Interested Party says:

    I don’t think, that this can derail Romney’s nomination. I do think that this theme (that Romney is a political chameleon) will have legs.

    That’s just it…Mittens gets the nomination and goes into the general election as a weakened candidate…this race has been looking like 2004 for some time…and if Romney loses, that, along with McCain’s loss in 2008, would have to point the GOP base towards nominating a “real conservative” in 2016…someone like Santorum or Palin…even a gaffe-prone blowhard like Biden (not that I would want him as the nominee) would stack up well compared to those two…

  3. And I guess the only other thought I have is that if my choice is between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, I can sympathize with those voters who choose to stay home on Election Day

  4. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps I would think the Etch A Sktech comment mattered more if it had been made by the candidate himself. And if it had been made somewhere other than a program that airs on CNN between 5-7am that next to nobody watches.

    A sound bite that does well in illustrating someone is golden no matter where it came from or who said it…and this particular sound bite perfectly describes Romney…

    More seriously, as I said in my post, the fact that the political media is focusing on 7 seconds out of a 30 second clip that was part of an interview that lasted more than 5 minutes demonstrates quite clearly just how trivial our political culture has become

    Oh my goodness, that is so true…they would be much better served to talk about Joe Biden sticking his foot in his mouth or the two year anniversary of PPACA or what Robert DeNiro said at a fundraiser…you know, things you’ve covered…

  5. @Doug Mataconis: But, isn’t 30 seconds or less the perfect length for a sound bite? And in the Internet age, does it matter when it was originally said?

    We agree that it would have mattered more had the candidate himself said it.

  6. @An Interested Party:

    The Biden comment was made by the Vice President of the United States, not some spokesperson appearing on an early morning talk show,.

    And, did you even bother reading what I wrote about the whole DeNiro comment non-troversy?

    Anyway, I’m going to bed, the rest of you guys can fight this out, or spend the next six hours talking about how Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth. Your choice

  7. @Steven L. Taylor:

    Again, the fact that a 30 second clip from a campaign aide is getting this much attention is exactly what’s wrong with our political culture.

  8. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “demonstrates quite clearly just how trivial our political culture has become”

    Said Jimmy Carter back in….when was the malaise speech again?

    Also….the folks who stay home because they don’t like the candidates? They don’t deserve sympathy. They deserve a kick in the butt.

    That said:
    @An Interested Party: Not sure your criticism is all that valid. The De Niro thing was mentioned as part of the whole “Woe the culture” theme, but I got no sense that Doug thought it was important. Indeed, I think it was mentioned precisely because it wasn’t important.

  9. Herb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    “the rest of you guys can fight this out, or spend the next six hours talking about how Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth. Your choice”

    I actually kind of think this stuff is what’s wrong with our political culture. Surely there is no one “talking about how Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth.” (Okay, so maybe someone is….but that someone is weird.)

    There are a lot of people talking about Barack Obama is a better candidate than the GOPers in the race….there are a lot of people who like and even idolize the president. Can you disagree without sliding into hyperbole? Yes, I think you can. (Maybe not when you’re tired and grumpy though….)

  10. I have to agree with Doug here… “I was for it before I was against it” and all of the Bushes’ myriad gaffes were poisonous to the candidates over the long run because the candidates themselves said them, and they could be used in attack ads without any real setup. Even “Mission Accomplished” was only able to become a punchline because it was so obviously associated with GWB (down to the whole carrier landing stunt) and needed a 1-second visual setup, if that. Spend half your ad trying to explain who Fehrnstrom even is and your message won’t get across.

    Unless Romney is dumb enough to get duped into repeating the Etch-a-Sketch comments himself on camera, its damage is limited to the sort of wonky people who (a) follow campaigns already and thus (b) are probably committed partisans in the first place. I see this being about as effective as the long run as the people who dress up like chickens at campaign events… yeah, some “clever” Obama supporters will wave around Etch-a-Sketches at a few events, and maybe they’ll try to make some cute viral videos for the hipsters, but the meaning will be lost on 90+% of the audience.

    Besides which, a criticism only really works effectively if the person making it is immune from it himself/herself. The Obama administration can be hit on numerous high-profile flip-flops with plenty of video to support them (the individual mandate, gas taxes, and Keystone are natural, obvious critiques from the right), so Axelrod and Obama’s SuperPAC surrogates may not want to go there.

  11. jukeboxgrad says:

    steven:

    There is, I will allow, a discount to be had, of course, that Kerry was the speaker in 2004 and a Romney functionary is the the current sound bite producer.

    I think that doesn’t matter much. It’s a detail that a lot of people won’t notice. If you polled voters in a year and asked them who said it, I bet a lot of voters would say it was Romney. Because over the next year, they are going to be exposed to many, many instances of those words and “Romney” appearing together in the same sentence or paragraph.

    And Romney saying ‘what are you talking about, that’s something I never said’ is an exceptionally lame defense, and I doubt he will attempt it.

    It’s also important to understand that Ferhnstrom is no minor functionary. He’s like Rove to Bush or Axelrod to Obama. Ferhnstrom and Mitt are bosom buddies, and have been for a long time. Even though most people don’t know this and won’t know this, it still ultimately enhances the impact.

    I do agree with Sullivan and Joe Klein

    Klein made a key point:

    it reflects the sterile management-consultancy ethos at the heart of the candidate

    This gets at something important, but it’s broader than Mitt’s “management-consultancy ethos.” It’s his business ethos. And “sterile” doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter. A better adjective would be ‘corrupt.’ Ferhnstrom’s statement reflects the corrupt business ethos at the heart of the candidate.

    The world of business that Mitt inhabited and embodies is a world where only one thing matters: making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, for yourself. Nothing else matters: not the truth, not ethics, not any sense of responsibility to a community or customers or employees. (American business was not always this way; Mitt’s dad was a different kind of businessman, and, not coincidentally, a different kind of politician.) So it’s perfectly natural for Mitt to bring this same philosophy to his political life. All that matters is getting elected. Paying attention to any other consideration is for wimps and losers.

    Yes, most politicians have at least some tendency to sell their soul for votes. But the key to understanding Mitt is that he takes this to an extreme that we rarely see. He does it so brazenly that even his own party can’t help noticing this and talking about it. It’s what Ferhnstrom himself was talking about. And it’s an exceptionally natural thing for Mitt to do, because he is a creature of a certain business culture where amorality is assumed, demanded, and carried out expertly. That’s why he can do this with great fluency and finesse. He’s a real pro.

  12. jukeboxgrad says:

    chris:

    Unless Romney is dumb enough to get duped into repeating the Etch-a-Sketch comments himself on camera

    He doesn’t have to. The words are already associated with him, and the association will deepen.

    a criticism only really works effectively if the person making it is immune from it himself/herself

    Mitt is widely viewed, and correctly, as an extreme, brazen flip-flopper. Obama is not. He’s viewed as doing it roughly as much as other politicians. That’s why this is not going to work the way you hope it’s going to work.

    By the way, it’s hard to argue that Obama is a Marxist from birth while also arguing that he has no core principles and will just go whichever way the wind is blowing. The GOP has attached itself to the former narrative, which makes it hard to switch to the latter. Speaking of flip-flopping.

  13. @jukeboxgrad: “The words are already associated with him, and the association will deepen.”

    How? Mitt Romney campaign manager Somebody Ferhnstrom said something about a toy zzz…. sorry, I fell asleep, because there’s no video or audio that has Romney saying the word “Etch-a-Sketch.” Where’s the attack ad? If there isn’t one, nobody will care. The clip will show up on Meet The Press this Sunday in the comedy segment at the end, everyone will have a nice chuckle about it, and it will be over.

    It’s like trying to take something that James Carville or Mary Matalin or Karl Rove said about their candidate and turn it into something that anyone outside the beltway (no pun intended) cares about. 99% of Americans have no clue who Ferhnstrom is. In November, 98% of Americans will still have no clue who Ferhnstrom is.

    Now, if you want to talk about a gaffe that could destroy a campaign, Santorum’s “I’d rather be a not-Romney than a not-Obama” would bite him in the ass… because (a) he said it and (b) there’s video and audio. But Santorum’s not even going to be on the GOP ticket, so it’s a non-issue.

    As for my “hoping” the flip-flopper charge will stick to Obama… well, I think you’re extrapolating my politics from very little evidence. And once Romney’s out of the primaries, the big “flip flop” on Romneycare/Obamacare is no longer an issue: he can simply say that he believes states can impose a mandate, even if it’s not wise, but the federal government can’t; let the states see what’s best, in the grand tradition of federalism, rather than top-down central planning from Washington loaded up with special interest favors. Oh, and by the way “my opponent switched sides on the very same issue; in 2008, he said you shouldn’t have to be forced to buy insurance… so what changed?”

    Don’t get me wrong, I think Romney has an uphill fight, but I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking about how much attention people pay to pre-convention stuff and how much of that really carries forward into the general election season. Kerry’s gaffe is the exception that proves the rule, again because it featured the candidate directly, so it was visceral and self-explanatory (you didn’t need a crawl saying “this is Kerry’s campaign advisor”; it was in his own voice and there was video of him saying it), and was easily excerptible to exclude any nuance. Ferhnstrom’s comments somewhat fit the latter (although it’s more long-winded) but not the former.

  14. jukeboxgrad says:

    Where’s the attack ad? If there isn’t one, nobody will care.

    You can’t find “the attack ad?” You’re joking, right? I guess you mean aside from the one that’s been seen 78,000 times, and the one that’s been seen 25,000 times, and the one that’s been seen 3,000 times, and the one that’s been seen 5,000 times? I could keep going, but you get the idea. There are those and many others, even though he said the words less than 48 hours ago.

    If you’re having trouble finding “the attack ad” I think you need to get someone to check your internet connection.

    it was in his own voice and there was video of him saying it

    There’s plenty of “video of him” [Mitt] contradicting himself. Ferhnstrom has provided the perfect frame, literally, for presenting that video. You can see this by looking at the numerous attack ads that are being released, practically on an hourly basis. Why you are oblivious to their existence is a mystery to me.

    The clip will show up on Meet The Press this Sunday in the comedy segment at the end, everyone will have a nice chuckle about it, and it will be over.

    Keep hope alive.

  15. anjin-san says:

    Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth

    You never seem to get tired of serving up this tripe. Can you show me even a single instance of a credible participant at OTB referring to Obama at “The One”, “Messiah”, etc?

    I think the Democrats here like and admire Obama. We think he is a bright guy with similar values to us. We are glad he is President. That’s it. No one is standing in line to kiss his feet.

    If you want to make crap up, you should really invite bithead and Jenos over and have a few beers while you do it.. You keep lowering yourself to their level, but unlike them, you are capable of doing a lot better.

  16. DRS says:

    I think Doug is kind of missing the point about this: since this is still an intramural in-the-family fight between Republicans the fact that it was uttered by a campaign staffer (one senior enough to be interviewed and televised) obviously is having a major impact. If it were the general election and the Democrats were trying to make hay about it, that would be one thing. But it’s the anti-Romney faction that is and will continue to be more exercised about this and its importance lies in the way it reinforces fellow Republicans that Romney and his team are RINO’s.

    And while I’m sure my opinion doesn’t matter to you at all, I’m sorry Doug but that comment about Obama strikes me as petulant and not worthy of you. Bad Doug. No biscuit for you today.

  17. jukeboxgrad says:

    it’s the anti-Romney faction that is and will continue to be more exercised about this and its importance lies in the way it reinforces fellow Republicans that Romney and his team are RINO’s.

    This is an important point, and it’s a lot like what happened when Newt and Rick Perry went after Mitt for his vulture capitalism. That attack coming from them lends extra validity to the claim, and it gives Obama a platform to use the same claim later. Same thing here. This is what we’re going to hear later about Mitt: ‘even his fellow Republicans realize he can’t be trusted.’ That will be effective because it’s true, and there is now lots of footage of Newt and Rick waving those toys around. That footage sends an important and powerful message: ‘you don’t need Obama to tell you Mitt’s a complete phony, because the GOP has already figured that out on it’s own.’

    And it’s going to nominate him anyway, which speaks volumes about the GOP.

  18. sam says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Perhaps I would think the Etch A Sketch comment mattered more if it had been made by the candidate himself. And if it had been made somewhere other than a program that airs on CNN between 5-7am that next to nobody watches.

    But, Doug, that’s a remarkably silly ground for your argument. The fact that the remark was made at that time and place means bupkis, as it was major news on the cable shows later in the day and evening. (I’ll grant had Mittens said it, it would have been more destructive). Santorum and Gingrich were on it like a duck a junebug. (See this Gringrich clip — via Sully.) And check out memorandum today.
    In this news environment, space and time have been obliterated. Like the God of Abraham, a politician’s or a politician’s surrogate’s utterances are omnipresent.

  19. This was not the candidate, only an adviser, but it’s surprising how much it’s blown up.

    My first reaction was “meh,” but then I heard of Etch A Sketchs on stage, key chain Etch A Sketchs as gifts.

    I never predict the future, but it seems possible this has longer legs, and not because of who said it .. because of how well it clicks with listeners, how will opponents can use it to craft their own message. I could see, for instance, a dismissal of a Romney pledge with “that’s just the Etch A Sketch talking.”

    So, sure this could be meme of the week, or we could see your graphic above on bumper stickers.

  20. @Doug Mataconis:

    Anyway, I’m going to bed, the rest of you guys can fight this out, or spend the next six hours talking about how Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth. Your choice

    Try not to highlight your own flaws. Self-control is the key.

  21. Brummagem Joe says:

    Anyway, I’m going to bed, the rest of you guys can fight this out, or spend the next six hours talking about how Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth. Your choice

    This specific issue has nothing to do with Obama who really seems to get under your skin Doug. This is the second time you’ve made this sort of comment in as many days. I’ve commented before on your:

    a. obliviousness to symbology and theater in politics

    b. dismissal of potent issues like contraception and abortion as trivial and unimportant when in fact they important coalition builders.

    Turning to Steven’s comments he’s entirely right about a narrowly divided electorate and it’s impact on polling which I’m somewhat suspicious of at the national level both because we’re eight months away from the election and I don’t put it past the media to massage the numbers to preserve the appearance of a horse race. Polls like those out of VA and OH have a bit more cred but even then it’s very early. As for etch a sketch is it the defining moment? Hard to tell but there’s at least a 50% chance it is. It depends on the extent the Democrats use it as a device to literally frame Romney. Personally I think issues like the auto bailout, the Republican stance women health issues, Romney’s tax and Bain records (this is going to assume massive proportions imho), the economy generally, and the plan to scrap Medicare are going to be much more important but just as Tom Dewey was the little man on the wedding cake Romney is probably going to be lurking in the public mind as the etch a sketch man.

  22. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    (Psst – Dr. Taylor – It’s Kinsley as in Michael, not Kinsey as in Alfred. Thinking about the weekend already?)

  23. Hey Norm says:

    Doug thinks it’s silly and frivolous…but he’s done two blog-posts about it.
    He also thought OWS was silly and frivolous…but they changed the National conversation.
    I’m not sure Doug understands the meaning of silly and frivolous.

  24. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Hey Norm:

    He also thought OWS was silly and frivolous…but they changed the National conversation.

    He also thinks contraception and abortion are trivial and unimportant issues. Yeah right.

  25. jukeboxgrad says:

    Above I described Mitt as a flip-flopper. I should point out that when we describe him that way, we’re being too kind. He’s something much worse: a liar.

    A flip-flopper does something like this: ‘I used to say A, and now I say not-A; here’s why I changed my mind; you can either accept that explanation, or not.’ In contrast, a liar does something like this: ‘I used to say A, and now I say not-A, but I’m not going to acknowledge or explain that I changed my position; instead, I’m going to brazenly pretend that I never said those other things I used to say.’

    The former is not always bad. That depends entirely on the quality of the explanation. But the latter is always bad, and Mitt has done plenty of it (example: “I have always opposed abortion”). Of course he has also done the former. The power of Ferhnstrom’s remark is that it reminds us of both the former and the latter.

  26. jukeboxgrad says:

    john:

    it’s surprising how much it’s blown up.

    But it’s not surprising. One of the best explanations I’ve seen is this:

    Why Etch A Sketch gibe will be hard for Romney to shake …

    Fehrnstrom has accidentally stumbled on something profound. … American voters don’t forget everything. Some words and ideas seem to permanently embed themselves in our collective psyche. … Pithy one-liners tend to fix themselves in our mental machinery far more easily than complex ideas. They capture a personality, a moment or an idea in a few compelling or amusing words. [see the original article, because he provides some outstanding examples] … The Etch A Sketch perfectly captures voters’ perception of Mitt Romney as an opportunistic politician anxious to redraw himself according to the political requirements of the moment

  27. @jukeboxgrad:

    Could be.

  28. Moosebreath says:

    I think Steven’s third point is the one closest to the mark. We have had months so far of media coverage largely driven by the Republican candidates, who while they disagree with each other, spend most of their time bashing Obama. Obama has largely been on the sidelines, giving a small number of speeches, but running few if any ads, and the media narrative rarely includes the Obama response to the Republican bashing. Once there is a Republican nominee and Obama gets into the game, this will change.

  29. Hey Norm says:

    @ SLT…
    If you are going to question why Obama’s lead is so slim…then I think you also have to ask why someone like Santorum is still hanging in there. It’s obvious that Romney will win the nomination…but the fact that anyone is still paying attention to a whack-a-doodle like Santorum speaks volumes.
    If Obama wins by 1%…that’s OK-fine.

  30. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Perhaps I would think the Etch A Sketch comment mattered more if it had been made by the candidate himself.

    As a counter-example, I give you something no one actually ever said: Al Gore’s “I invented the internet” line that became the political punchline repeated over and over again because it encapsulated the stereotype that he was pompous and overtly political.

    Another would be Palin getting tagged with Tina Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” line as that played into the stereotype of her as ignorant and silly.

    Accordingly, I think the Etch-a-Sketch comment will have legs because it plays so perfectly into the stereotype that Romney will say anything and take any position today that he thinks helpful and will lie about past positions. it doesn’t matter whether or not he actually said it. What matters is that everyone will be repeating it.

  31. @Doug Mataconis:

    Again, the fact that a 30 second clip from a campaign aide is getting this much attention is exactly what’s wrong with our political culture.

    And that makes for a legitimate critique.

    My point isn’t about whether this is a good thing or not, but rather am looking at whether it maters or not. I think this kind of thing very much can.

  32. @Steven L. Taylor:

    And that’s my point. Our political media in general spends far too much time on analysis like that to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you talk about Etch A Sketch’s for hours of course people are going to notice. The question that the pundits and talking heads ought to be asking themselves is whether they should be talking about Etch A Sketchs for hours.

  33. Davebo says:

    Can you show me even a single instance of a credible participant at OTB referring to Obama at “The One”, “Messiah”, etc?

    That would be one Doug Mataconis. And this isn’t the first time.

    Therefore since Doug has said repeatedly that he won’t vote for Obama we can only assume that he hates the Baby Jesus. (The one who actually walked on earth and all).

  34. JohnMcC says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Is it really the media ‘talking about etch-a-sketch’ that demonstrates what is wrong with the American politcial culture? I would propose that it is Mr Fehrenstrom’s and Mr Romney’s apparent belief that they can be nominiated and then ‘reset’ their entire political meaning is what is wrong with our political culture.

    But unlike Mr Mataconis, I do not think that all of politics is tactical. Some (fairly large) percentage actually makes a difference to the life of a nation.