Further Thoughts On The Resonance And Relevance Of The Etch-A-Sketch Meme

The Etch A Sketch meme isn't nearly as powerful as those pushing it believe it to be.

Steven Taylor’s post last night pushes back a little bit on the argument I made yesterday that the meme that had developed over a comment by Romney campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom and his reference to an Etch A Sketch. While I understand where Steven and several of the commentators are coming from, and I can see that the idea of an Etch A Sketch does seem to reinforce the idea of Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, the entire incident still strikes me as just the latest example of how trivial most political coverage in this country has become and how pundits and bloggers, including yours truly, have far too much of a tendency to focus on momentary gaffes and misstatements by candidates that the voting public as a whole likely doesn’t really care about. Additionally, the amount of attention this story has received in such a short period of time has been a fairly good example of how political “news” tends to be about the horse race and about process stories rather than about anything even remotely approaching substance. It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, the media could choose to ignore stories like this, or at least not given them nearly as much coverage as they do, and pundits could choose to talk about substance rather than what’s getting the latest buzz on Twitter. They don’t, of course, because that would require actual work.

In any event, I think the points that were made in Steven’s post and the comments about how this comment will somehow resonate because of what we already know about Romney are well placed, but ultimately mistaken. Brendan Nyhan, for example, responds to an argument made by The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and notes that there’s very little evidence that campaign gaffes like this have any influence at all on voters:

[E]ven if the episode is just “one piece of evidence,” we should be able to find some indication that campaign gaffes affect voters. In reality, though, the evidence suggests that these types of events have little electoral significance. None of the gaffes that Cillizza highlights—from Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak to uncertainty about how many houses you own—had significant effects on the outcome of those presidential campaigns. (In addition, the grocery store scanner episode is disputedand appears to be false.)

For instance, when George Washington University political scientist John Sides looked at five events from the 2008 campaign identified by the journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in their book The Battle for America as especially significant, he found they had “basically had no impact on voters nationwide.” Likewise, a comprehensive review of pre-election trial heat polls by the political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert S. Erickson (gated) found that “During the early campaign—roughly the 100 days preceding the late-summer conventions—campaign shocks are large but temporary; news about the campaign affects voters but is eventually forgotten and thus has little impact on the final outcome.”

This, I think, is the most important point. Even in the middle of a contested (although essentially over) Republican primary race, the vast majority of American voters are not paying the kind of daily attention to this race that those of us who are politically engaged have been for months now. To the extent that they are, it’s likely on a cursory basis and they aren’t really going to tune in to the race until we get closer to the party conventions and, of course, after Labor Day. To pick just one example, Tuesday night’s primary coverage garnered a total of roughly 3,574,000 prime time viewers for all three cable news networks, of that roughly 927,000 were in the 25-54 age demographic. That’s infinitesimal compared to the number of people who were watching something else, and an even smaller portion of the population as a whole. Cable news ratings on Wednesday night (Day one of the “Etch-A-Sketch” nonsense) were lower than Tuesday nights. So yes, there’s been a lot of coverage of this story, but who’s been watching it? Mostly people like you and me who have been paying attention to this stuff since way back when people like Herman Cain were still in the race. The idea that it’s going to have a huge impact on an election that won’t happen for more than seven months seems absurdly silly.

George Washington University Political Science Professor John Sides, meanwhile, argues that the voters who would be impacted by this kind of meme are likely to be supporting Barack Obama already anyway:

The question, however, is whether voters’ perceptions of “whose the biggest flipflopper” are as potent as their perceptions of other characteristics of the candidates.  Consider characteristics like “cares about people like me” or “cares about the middle class”—qualities on which Romney is also disadvantaged relative to Obama.   Which of these is the strongest predictor of vote intention in a Romney-Obama race?  Using two January YouGov polls, I estimated the impact of different characteristics—takes positions and sticks by them, is personally wealthy, cares about people like me, cares about the poor, cares about the middle class, and cares about the rich—while controlling for people’s party identification.  In particular, I took ratings of each candidate on each dimension and subtracted ratings of Romney from ratings of Obama.  So these measures capture the kinds of comparative assessments that we think voters might make.

Here is the upshot: when people evaluate Obama more favorably than Romney on the flip-flopper dimension, they are also more likely to prefer Obama in a head-to-head match-up.  But this apparent effect pales beside the effect of two other dimensions: cares about people like me and cares about the middle class.  (The other dimensions do not have statistically significant effects.)

Take a political independent who thinks that the term “takes positions and sticks by them” describes Obama “not very well” but describes Romney “somewhat well.”  Assume their evaluations on the other dimensions are equal to the average of everyone else in the sample.  Now pretend this person switches their view to one more favorable to Obama: “takes positions and sticks by them” describes Obama somewhat well but describes Romney not very well.  What would happen to their chance of voting for Obama?  According to the model, it would increase by 31%.

But the same shift in perceptions of who “cares about people like me” would produce a much larger shift in Obama’s favor—61%.  The same shift in perceptions of who “cares about the middle class” has a similar effect, increasing the chances of voting for Obama by 59%.

More importantly, it strikes me as highly unlikely that the political independents and swing voters who are likely to decide this election are going to be influenced very much by the question of whether or not Mitt Romney is a “flip flopper” or how much of a movement conservative he might be. In addition to the characteristics that influence voting that Sides discusses, it’s also fairly clear that these voters are not heavily influenced by ideological considerations. You’re more likely to see these voters voting on pocketbook issues, the economy, and the question of which client they believe is better suited to fix the country’s problems. Both candidates have positives and negatives in that regard, of course, and how these voters make their choice is more likely to be influenced by how they feel about the state of the  country during that two month period between Labor Day and Election Day than it is over a meme that was popular for a few days in March.

Nyhan concludes his post with this:

We’re currently 158 days from the Republican convention, and “Etch a Sketch-gate” will likely prove to be just as inconsequential. By the time the general election rolls around, the incident will most likely be forgotten. And even if it remains salient, it’s unlikely to change voters’ minds since, as Cillizza concedes, “How you view the Etch a Sketch incident…depends in large part on how you view Romney.” Better to rethink how you view the “freak show” aspect of the political press instead.

This is the point I made yesterday. A media that constantly focuses on irrelevancies, as ours does, is doing a huge disservice to the public. Yea it’s fun to watch, but in the end it doesn’t inform anyone and it doesn’t help the country one bit.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. It is not just the media (yourself included), it is the entire system, including the candidates.

    That serial kook Ron Paul mocks everyone else for non-seriousness is just icing on the cake.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    The example that comes to mind was during the last general election when someone on Obama’s campaign told the Canadian to ignore the heatest protectionist rhetoric coming from Obama, that was just for the elections.

  3. JBJB says:

    48% going to vote for Obama no matter what, 48% will vote for Mitt no matter what. The other 4% will probably vote based on the economy (barring some major event between now and then), the rest is theater.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    “…A media that constantly focuses on irrelevancies, as ours does, is doing a huge disservice to the public…”

    FYI…this is Doug’s fourth post on an irrevelancy.

  5. SKI says:

    This, I think, is the most important point. Even in the middle of a contested (although essentially over) Republican primary race, the vast majority of American voters are not paying the kind of daily attention to this race that those of us who are politically engaged have been for months now. To the extent that they are, it’s likely on a cursory basis and they aren’t really going to tune in to the race until we get closer to the party conventions and, of course, after Labor Day.

    Exactly – and this is actually why this meme is so damaging.

    To re-post the comment I had just left this morning on yesterday’s thread (real-life and all that…):

    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.

    And I’ll add, by repeating it now, when low-info voters are just tuning in, drive home an agreed-upon narrative that our political journalists/talking heads use because they are lazy and don’t do nuance.

  6. SKI says:

    @PD Shaw:

    The example that comes to mind was during the last general election when someone on Obama’s campaign told the Canadian to ignore the heatest protectionist rhetoric coming from Obama, that was just for the elections.

    Except that didn’t play into an agreed-upon narrative so it didn’t have legs.

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    Doug, the amount of time you and others are devoting to pushing back on this issue is itself evidence of it’s potency. Is it the most important thing that is going to happen in the campaign? Obviously not. Is it a small but powerful and damaging symbol of Romney’s candidacy that the Obama campaign will be able to use tactically against him? Unquestionably.

  8. Modulo Myself says:

    People talk about the base as a constant. But it’s clear from the last general elections that this is not the case: the base can be stretched or compressed.

    I think it’s safe to say that nobody commenting on a politics blog can really imagine what it’s like to be a steadfast Romney voter or a steadfast Obama voter who never got around to voting. This does happen, apparently. And this is why somebody like Rove, who lived on turning on the base, was a believer in tagging people with the same meme, over and over.

  9. @Hey Norm:

    FYI…this is Doug’s fourth post on an irrevelancy.

    Self-actualization, or denial. That is the question.

  10. Herb says:

    The idea that it’s going to have a huge impact on an election that won’t happen for more than seven months seems absurdly silly.

    Well, I think there’s quite a spectrum between “huge impact” and “no impact.” Will this meme have an impact? Yes. And it’s probably going to impact the folks who are not tuned in the most.

  11. @SKI:

    Except that didn’t play into an agreed-upon narrative so it didn’t have legs.

    True and the guy was rapidly dismissed.

  12. Jr says:

    It is hilarious watching people try to brush this under the rug. If this had been any other candidate your right, it wouldn’t have legs. But this is Mitt Romney, who biggest issue is his flip-flopping and lack of convections.

    Etch-a-sketch simply gives the Obama campaign team a cute name for it.

  13. MBunge says:

    “A media that constantly focuses on irrelevancies, as ours does, is doing a huge disservice to the public.”

    1. The fact that Romney is a big fat liar who repeatedly changes his positions to whatever is politically advantageous at the moment is not irrelevant. It’s kind of an important issue of character for who sits in the Oval Office.

    2. You do realize, Doug, that your track record on deciding what does and doesn’t matter in politics is somewhat less than stellar?

    Mike

  14. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Doug,

    Every time you make another post with this Etch a Sketch image in it, you only reinforce its potency in the minds of those who see it. Right now, there are *three* postings of the exact same image on the front page. This is equivalent to the posts here the other day about how pollsters asking if Obama is a Muslim reinforces the idea in the minds of the people polled that he is a Muslim, regardless of its veracity.

    I have absolutely no idea if you’re doing this intentionally. Surely you *must* realize that the one image you’re posting will be remembered long after your 13 paragraphs contradicting said image are forgotten, right? I mean – you’re a lawyer – your job is to persuade, and you’ld be a crappy lawyer if you didn’t understand cognitive psychology and the power of visuals and of repeating ideas as tools of persuasion.

    I really do not understand what your purpose is in making all of these posts, unless it is to reinforce this meme contra to your claims.

  15. @MBunge:

    I realize that we live in a nation of breads and circuses, which is why I have no real hope that any thing good will come from this or any election in the foreseeable future.

  16. @Hey Norm:

    I’m sorry you don’t see the problem with the world we live in. But then its hard to when you’re part of the problem

  17. @Gromitt Gunn:

    I am well aware that our political culture becomes obsessed with silly and irrelevant issues all the time and it may well be that this will be a meme that sticks. We’ll see. But that’s not the point I’m making.

    If you’ve noticed, my point has been that it is precisely the fact that we keep focusing on the irrelevancies, on the gaffes, on the process stories that we are in the situation we’re in today. We’ll probably keep doing that, which means we’ll continue being royally screwed.

    I am not trying to promote any meme, I am saying we need to stop focusing on memes.

  18. @Doug Mataconis:

    And … you don’t find your own 5 or 10 posts on thinks like drum circles to be part of the problem?I guess it is (see above) denial. If you don’t like superficiality, stop doing it.

    (Your “Barack Obama is God-Walking-On-Earth” moment yesterday really crystallizes this for the reader.)

  19. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “I realize that we live in a nation of breads and circuses, which is why I have no real hope that any thing good will come from this or any election in the foreseeable future.”

    Again, the fact that Mitt Romney is a big, fat liar who changes his positions to whatever is politically advantageous at the moment is not “bread and circuses”. It is a perfectly legitimate and rather important issue of character.

    Frankly, Doug, you’re a perfect example of how important something like the Etch-a- Sketch meme can be. All one has to do is look back at how the “Occupy Wall Street = hippies I hated in college” meme took hold in your brain and made you incapable of having any intelligent discussion on the subject.

    Mike

  20. John,

    Based on how it proceeded into the winter, the rapes that took place at several Occupy camps, and the lack of a coherent agenda from those people, I stand by everything I said about that movement. They need(ed) to stand out of the way and let the people who know how to get things done in politics take over.

  21. .@MBunge:

    It’s an irrelevant conversation at this point because Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee and there is nobody in race who is (1) any better than him and (2) has any better chance of beating the President.

    I would have liked to have seen it turn out differently. I would have liked to see other people run. I would have liked to see candidates like Jon Huntsman and Gary Johnson, two term Governors both, taken more seriously by Republican voters. None of that happened and at this point there’s virtually no chance I’ll be voting for anyone other than Gary Johnson in November,.

    Republicans have made their bed, now the have to lie in it.

  22. @john personna:

    And you’ll note if you go back to last year that I did write about income inequality issues. I just didn’t — and don’t — take the Hippie-wannabes of Occupy seriously.

  23. MBunge says:

    @Doug Mataconis: “there’s virtually no chance I’ll be voting for anyone other than Gary Johnson in November”

    Doug, if that’s the case then (and pardon my language)…WHY DO YOU GIVE A SHIT!!!!! WHY THE CONSTANT, REPETITIVE WHINING ON BEHALF OF ROMNEY AND AGAINST SANTORUM!!!! WHY THE CLEAR SUPPORT FOR ROMNEY OVER SANTORUM OR GINGRICH BACK WHEN IT WAS MORE OF A RACE!!!! WHY!!!!

    Mike

  24. Herb says:

    Now, now, children. Let’s put the pointy fingers away. Doug’s not a horrible person and Hey Norm isn’t part of the problem. Mitt Romney is running a terrible campaign and the OWS people are clueless do-nothings. The media sucks and yet, we can’t get enough. (Anyone see those vids of that Stop Kony guy freaking out naked on TMZ? Hil-arious!)

  25. Modulo Myself says:

    They need(ed) to stand out of the way and let the people who know how to get things done in politics take over.

    Doug once again hits a barrier inside his own head. On one hand, he hates trivial memes. On the other, here’s a real American cliche about the Way Things Work for you all to live by.

    Doug, did it ever occur to you that the way to get things done in politics passes through the Etch-A-Sketch as frequently as it does the policy paper? Or that your Serious People are scheduled by the same system that schedules Trivial Memes, just at a later hour? Or that the Occupy movement, for all of their many many stupidities, were onto something far more serious about the deadness and coercion of the American Dream than any three thousand frowning pundits combined?

  26. @MBunge:

    Yes I have been negative about Santorum, and will continue to do so because I believe he represents a brand of conservatism that is bad for America and, to the extent I even care, bad for the Republican Party.

    As for Romney, you’ll notice that the only positive thing I’ve been saying about him is that he is the inevitable Republican nominee and that neither Santorum and Gingrich have a chance of stopping him. It’s not because I like him, it’s because it’s an objective fact demonstrable simply by looking at the delegate math.

  27. @Modulo Myself:

    You don’t win elections, get bills through Congress, or change minds, by wasting time on stupid memes created by the media.

  28. Hey Norm says:

    @ Doug…
    I both see the problem, and recognize you as being front and center in it.
    There’s twenty other topics I’d rather see discussed.
    You’ve put up four posts on this topic since yesterday.
    Project much?
    At least James moved on to Jim Yong Kim.

  29. Norm,

    Funny but its the stuff that’s in the news that gets the traffic. Do you realize how little traffic a foreign policy post on here usually gets?

  30. Moosebreath says:

    “FYI…this is Doug’s fourth post on an irrevelancy.”

    And by my view of the site, the last post Doug made on an issue, rather than a process or a distraction was the debt post. On Tuesday.

    Physician, heal thyself.

  31. LaMont says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I believe that you are preaching to the choir Doug. I agree with you and can not stand it when the media, or politicians via the media, take advantage of the vast ignorance of the average person not following politics. On a side note, can you really blame these people for not being political junkies? Thats pretty much what it takes to cut throught all the BS from the media and politicians alike. But I digress – I think many of us are just stating the obvious reality while you are correctly pointing out how reality stinks. What I disagree with you is the notion that this may not have any legs. Although it did not come from “the camel’s mouth” as it did during the time Kerry ran, I believe it will be just as affective against Romney. This is a different time of social media. Heck – social media alone is the reason this even became a story to begin with! While people do forget, all it takes is reminders from the president’s campaign to reinforce them. And to those that do not follow politics as much, this is all it takes.

  32. @Moosebreath:

    Some of have lives. You could always do your own writing, you know

  33. Moosebreath says:

    Doug,

    So your schedule is too busy to post on any topics you deem important, but has room for multiple posts on something you deem trivial, not to mention a whole series of posts on purely process issues, of the sort you decry when the media does. Fascinating.

  34. Hey Norm says:

    @ Doug…
    Well at least you admit you’re just trolling for page-views.
    Admitting you have a problem is generally the first step.

  35. @Hey Norm:

    You can only write so many long pieces about an issue that get little recognition without wondering if the effort was worth it, you know.

  36. Hey Norm says:

    @ Doug,
    I do feel your pain.
    I spent 15 years in broadcast journalism. I ultimately began the process of changing careers when a story that I felt was important got bumped by a White Bronco (hint: it wasn’t Tim Tebow.)
    We have a saying at the firm where I work now: “Do something really cool…the money will follow”. It works.

  37. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I understand what your point is in your writing, as your textual arguments been very clear and consistent. Mine is that in spite of the intent of your writing, you (collectively, the front pagers) have the Etch a Sketch photo in 3 different places on the front page of OTB. By doing so, you (again, collectively, the front pagers) are legitimizing the meme contra your stated point.

    Visuals stick more easily than text. And I expect that you understand the power of visuals and of repetition as persuasive tools given your profession. What I don’t understand is why you then are taking an action – by using the same visual image repeatedly – that legitimizes to your audience the thing that you’re writing against.

  38. An Interested Party says:

    You don’t win elections, get bills through Congress, or change minds, by wasting time on stupid memes created by the media.

    What planet do you live on? Do you actually pay attention to how politics works? It’s rather naive to think that memes don’t influence politics…meanwhile, I wonder if you grasp the irony of complaining about something that you claim to be insignificant but yet you can’t stop talking about it…

  39. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    I realize that we live in a nation of breads and circuses, which is why I have no real hope that any thing good will come from this or any election in the foreseeable future.

    Weeerrrrrree alllllll dooooommmmmed

  40. JohnMcC says:

    I just went to the google and typed in three letters (e – t – c) and the second suggested search was for “etch a sketch romney”. It got 280 million hits in 0.18 seconds.

    This website has four Original Posts by two essayists and well over 100 comments on the topic.

    Mr Mataconis has apparently spent a large part of today commenting on his own posts, protesting how trivial and meaningless this is.

    What am I missing here?

  41. Brummagem Joe says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Mr Mataconis has apparently spent a large part of today commenting on his own posts, protesting how trivial and meaningless this is.

    M’thinks he doth protest too loudly.

  42. al-Ameda says:

    Actually Doug, Etch-A-Sketch is a dead-on correct analogy for the Romney campaign.

    Mitt Romney will say ANYTHING to get elected. If it means repudiating past positions he’s taken on an issue (e.g. reproductive rights and insurance mandates) he will not hesitate to do so. He is hoping that all of this will be forgotten once the general election rolls around.

    Will it work? Ask Senator Kerry if the “flip-flop” charges stuck.

  43. @Doug Mataconis:

    I realize that we live in a nation of breads and circuses, which is why I have no real hope that any thing good will come from this or any election in the foreseeable future.

    While on the one hand, I think we agree that it would be nicer if candidates (and the public) were more focused on serious policy questions and real philosophical debates. However, that’s not mass politics. More importantly, however, I think that discussing the way campaign narratives evolve and grow is not “bread and circuses” (which connotes simply trying to distract the crowd). The way we perceive candidates matters since we are voting for as much that image as we are specific policy goals.

    And yes, John Sides is right: something like this hardly decides elections. However, I do think that they can matter. Kerry’s flip-flop persona mattered. The notion that Gore was an exaggerator mattered. Ed Muskie’s tears mattered. Thomas Eagleton’s electro-shock therapy mattered. I am not saying all of these are equivalent, or that the Etch-A-Sketch bit is on the same plane. I am just pointing out that a mass campaign, which is about marketing after all, is predicated on image and public perceptions. As such, these thing matter and are far more than just the “silly season” or “bread and circuses.”

  44. That should be “discussing” not “dismissing” (will fix–but for anyone getting these via e-mail please note).

  45. @al-Ameda:

    All politicians will do or say anything to get elected. That’s why they can’t be trusted.

  46. anjin-san says:

    But then its hard to when you’re part of the problem

    The irony meter just exploded…

  47. Brummagem Joe says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    All politicians will do or say anything to get elected. That’s why they can’t be trusted.

    Another of your rather (it has to be said) childish observations I’m afraid Doug. If you detest the political process so much (and it’s certainlly not always pretty) then why spend so much time talking about it. Certainly most politicians shade the truth at times but Romney’s record of reversals is legendary and this is why the etch a sketch metaphor has so much power.

  48. An Interested Party says:

    Via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, here is a description (by one of Sullivan’s readers) of Romney to match the Etch-A-Sketch meme…

    Romney makes much of his experience as a CEO. But for most of his career, he was a consultant. If you haven’t dealt with consultants much, here is the difference:

    A CEO has to have some kind of vision for where he wants to take his company, even if it is just a steady-as-she-goes vision. It defines what he does for his tenure, and only gets changed if major outside events impact the company.

    A consultant is different. What he has is an idea he can sell to the current customer. It matters not at all whether it is the same, or diametrically opposite, as the idea that he sold to the last customer. All that matters is selling the idea, getting paid, and moving on (before there is any way to know if it actually worked).

    And that is Romney’s candidacy in a nutshell: sell the current idea to the audience of the moment and move on. But there’s a problem. Consultants are not generally subject to videos of what they told the last client becoming public. And prospective clients are not likely to spend time comparing notes with past clients. In politics, however, everybody has a record of what you said at the last campaign stop, or in the last electoral cycle, or any other time in your career.

    Maybe in some people’s minds that might add something substantial to the “silly meme”…

  49. jukeboxgrad says:

    doug:

    there’s very little evidence that campaign gaffes like this have any influence at all on voters

    Gaffes vary in importance, and no one has a crystal ball. But it’s wonderfully ironic to hear about the alleged unimportance of gaffes in the context of a discussion about someone named Romney, because Mitt’s dad destroyed his own political career by uttering a single word. (Paste this into google: george romney br. And see how google finishes it for you.)