“Etch A Sketch” Was An Inside The Beltway Meme

Once again, the punditocracy seems to have misread the voting public.

Remember the media storm that erupted last week after Romney campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom used that great old children’s the Etch-A-Sketch to analogize how the Romney campaign might shift focus from the primary campaign to a General Election. Romney’s opponents, the Democratic Party, and political pundits everywhere immediately jumped upon the comment and turned into the a three day media firestorm. As I noted at the time, I found the whole thing to be rather silly, although the comments to my post on the subject seemed to suggest that others disagreed. In any event, there was much speculation about how powerful this meme might be and whether it would pose a threat to Romney. My own assessment was that it would be another one of those short-lived political memes that the pundits obsess with for several days and then forget about fairly quickly. Again, others disagrees.

Based on a new poll from the Pew Research Center, it may turn out that the Romney campaign might not have to worry being followed around by Etch A Sketches from now until November:

In the wake of a comment by senior Mitt Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom on Wednesday comparing the children’s toy to how his candidate would address some of the more conservative positions if he became the GOP presidential nominee, the political world exploded. (This blog posted two long-ish analyses on what Etch a Sketch might mean.

The whole world was watching. Or not.

A new Pew Research Center poll shows that 55 percent of people were entirely unaware of the Etch a Sketch incident. Among the 44 percent who had heard about Fehrnstrom’s remark, 29 percent said it would have no effect on their feelings about Romney while 11 percent said it would make them less likely to support him and three percent said they were now more likely to back the former Massachusetts governor.

The numbers serve as a reminder — for the umpteenth time — that simply because 100 percent of people who do politics for a living (the Fix included) are closely following a story, it’s no guarantee that the story is penetrating nearly as broadly among the general public.

That’s true even for a story like this one that drew wall-to-wall media coverage for days as Democrats and Romney’s Republican rivals sought to capi­tal­ize on Fehrnstrom’s slip. Most people just have better things to do than follow every twist and turn of a presidential race.

Granted, the 44% of respondents who say that they had heard about the story is not an insignificant number of people, but of that group 29% percent said that it would have no impact on their opinion of Romney, while only 11% said it would make them think less of him. Yes, this is only one poll but I don’t think we’re going to find much of anything different from other sources.

As I said last week, those of us who follow politics intently and comment on it passionately tend to be just a a little bit different from average Americans. For one thing, many of them have better things to do than pay attention to a Presidential campaign with the same level of intensity for an entire year. When they do watch television its more likely to be CSI or American Idol than any of the cable news channels. Moreover, when they are paying attention to news, the Pew poll shows that they are paying to attention to things other than politics:

The growing controversy over the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida was the public’s top story last week, though African Americans express far greater interest in news about the killing than do whites.

Overall, a quarter of Americans (25%) say they followed news about the African American teenager killed by a community watch volunteer more closely than any other story. Smaller percentages say they followed news about the presidential elections (16%) or the economy (15%) most closely, according to the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, conducted March 22-25, 2012, among 1,003 adults by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The fact that the Martin story was garnering more attention than the election at this point in time isn’t entirely surprising. Not only does that story stir up a wide variety of issues and passions, but we’re now in the phase of the election season where things have essentially become predictable and, as the Etch a Sketch meme shows, we’re entering the silly season (if we ever actually left it). Is it any surprise that people kind of tune out when pundits and politics start holding up Etch A Sketch’s as if they’re making some profound political point?

More often than not, the things that pundits think are important in an election end up being far less important to the people who actually do the voting. This would appear to be one of those times.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. LCB says:

    My wife liked Hermann Cain because he was a Christian preacher, he dilvered his speaches well, he had an awesome voice when he sang…and…and…

    That was about it. Sad to say, my wife, like most of the electorate, doesn’t follow issues. It’s all about flash and image. It’s taken me years to get her to understand that the government has NO buiness in the bedrooms of America; that’s its up to God to judge what’s right and wrong (same-sex marriage), not judges or the majority.

    Who will voters elect this fall. The canidate that looks dah prettiest.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    First off…the Obama Campaign hasn’t really started yet. Should they decide to use the etch-sketch I’m sure the numbers will move. The minute I happen upon a good etch-a-sketch bumper sticker it’s going on. It’s the most appropriate political metaphor I’ve ever seen.
    Second…I’m sure a large portion of the 29% already have a bad image of Romney…so that will not change. Sort of like the percentage of people who don’t like the PPACA…but the polls never differentiate between those who think it goes too far and those who don’t like it because it doesn’t go far enough…ie single payer.
    Third…you were also conviced the OWS would fade quickly. Then they changed the National Political Discourse.

  3. Moosebreath says:

    Norm has it exactly right. Obama has not begun to advertise significantly, and none of Romney’s challengers have the money to do so either. Once this hits the airwaves, it will be a big deal.

    Or to put it another way, how many people had heard of John Kerry saying he was for something before he was against it a week after he said it?

  4. Tano says:

    Sorry Doug, but I cannot see the sense in this argument.

    The fact that only 44% of people have heard of the meme is not an argument against the power of the meme, it merely speaks to the percentage of people who are paying close attention to the race. I don’t think it is surprising that nearly half of Americans are tuned out of the primary battle – most of them will, in the end, pay attention for a while (even if it is only for the last two weeks in October) and when they do, the meme will be trotted out and will have an affect.

    Further, of that 44% who have heard the meme, 29% say it will not change their opinion of him. You find that meaningful??? Why? The whole point of considering the meme to be powerful is that it is such an accurate metaphor for the type of person that Romney is. So why is it surprising that a large percentage of those who do know him, who are following the campaign, find that this meme doesn’t change their view of him? They have believed he is an Etch-a-Sketch man all along.

    That 11% of the people (ok, net 8%) find that this picture of Romney would make them less likely to vote for him – is HUGE. If you get similar rates of response from the other 56% of the population once they actually hear about the meme (as the Dems will make certain that they do), then you have the potential for 8-11% of the entire voting population being less likely to vote for Romney because of this meme.

    In an election that will probably turn on less than 10% of voters, to have one single meme, no matter how silly, have the potential to turn just that number of voters against the candidate – wow, how can you possible conclude that this is meaningless? It is quite obviously the exact opposite.

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    Is this Doug’s fifth or sixth diary on this (accordiing to him) totally unimportant topic. Given that probably half the electorate can’t name three members of the supreme court the fact that 44% of the electorate are aware of this incident is hardly insignificant. I’m afaid Doug’s continuing efforts to wish this away are borderline pathological. Personally I think it has legs once the campaign gets underway and if Obama’s team start using the metaphor in their advertising. I could be wrong but it’s too early to tell. There’s a new ABC poll out where Romney’s unfaves are at awful levels, who can say whether the etch a sketch incident played a role. It almost certainly did.

  6. Joe,

    I dare you to count home many posts I’ve actually written about this (or more precisely the ridiculous media attention given to an off-the-cuff remark). Here’s a clue, you’ll still have fingers left over on one hand and five unused ones on the other.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    No need to be coy, how many is it. I certainly remember several of inordinate length like this one.

  8. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “I dare you to count home many posts I’ve actually written about this”

    Why did you need to post about it more than once?


  9. Hey Norm says:

    @ MBunge…

  10. Curtis says:

    The interesting thing to me about this story is that I don’t think it could have much impact on the general election. Is there really some significant segment of the Republican base that is not going to turn out to vote for Romney against the socialist, Kenyan anticolonialist, fascist spawn of Satan who hates America? It is not going to happen.

    If this gaffe had happened before Florida, then perhaps it could have swung the primary. If Romney had a credible opponent left, it could have swung the primary. Voters are just much easier to sway in a primary than in the general election since most voters will agree with most candidates on most issues.

    That being said, it seems that Obama’s strategy for the general election is to paint Romney as a crazy Republican, and the etch a sketch sure helps him do that. When he tries to moderate for the general, they run ads with the crazy talk from one of the debates, and do a shake shake shake. You can’t trust anything he says, they finish, “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.”

    I still maintain it is a gaffe that plays both into the most negative caricature of him as a candidate, and it plays right into the narrative that the Obama campaign was already gearing up for. It doesn’t have to change the minds of 10% of the population, and it won’t. But even a flip of 2% in the middle maked it that much harder to get over the line.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    There’s a new ABC poll out where Romney’s unfaves are at awful…

    This is the key…polls consistently show that Romney has higher unfavorables than any presidential candidate in decades…this little meme, which I bet will get massive play in the general election, will travel far outside the beltway as it reinforces what so many people already don’t like about Romney…

  12. DRS says:

    This was never a general public issue. The ones who first went full outrage on the incident were the other Republican candidates and the Right Wing Blogocracy who felt it was yet more proof that Romney wasn’t a real one-of-them. The real damage Romney would have sustained was to his efforts to reach out to this group who seem determined not to trust him – which will require him to make even more efforts and/or say even more outrageous things.

    The general media picked up on the right wing hissy fit, not the original statement.

  13. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Well Doug, in defense of Joe, I count 5 links at the bottom of the article, four are on Etch-a-Sketch, and three are yours.

    I think your running out of fingers on hand one…

  14. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    In your defense, Doug, I think that since the collective memory of the American public can now be measured in nanoseconds, I don’t expect this to become some big deal later. Still, it was bush league for you to lead with your chin the way that you did to B-Joe. Bad form!