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October 09, 2012

Sean Trende's Brilliant Big-Picture Analysis of the Race, and Obama's Campaign Strategy

This isn't about polls, per se. It's bigger than that.

Trende's argument -- I feel stupid digesting it because he's perfectly succinct and clear in explaining it himself -- is that this election's real story is "Obama vs. Gravity," or "Obama vs. the Fundamentals Which Are Largely Against Him." Being a "bandwagon" sort of candidate, it's crucial for him to maintain the Winner's Edit -- like in a reality TV show, you know who's going to win or lose based on who gets the Winner's Edit, and who gets the Loser's Edit.

The pattern of the race, and the polls, has been this: Obama wins a newscycle, big, for whatever reason, and ekes out a 4-6 point lead. But then the public remembers about the fundamentals of the state of the nation, and that lead begins to deteriorate down to about 2 points, or a tie. And at that point Obama comes out with another big attack on Romney (it's almost always an attack blitz) and pushes his lead up... for a time. Until gravity overtakes that again, and pulls it back down, in which case it's time for the Next Big Narrative-Grabbing Attack.

It's not so much a "theory" as "exactly what's happened."

He notes the downside of this strategy-- the bandwagon effect relies on an all but permanent Winner's Edit. What happens when he starts to lose? Compare the Virtuous Cycle (for the White House) that the Winner's Edit provides him with the Vicious Cycle the Loser's Edit saddles him with:

First, the bandwagon effect affects fundraising. Once you move outside the partisan core, people like to back winners. This is especially true of the business community. By assiduously cultivating its front-runner status, the Obama campaign has aided its ability to press future arguments.

Second, maintaining a lead allows greater leeway in the arguments it can make. Something like the “cancer ad” from August looks hard-hitting from a campaign that is leading (and I certainly include candidate super PACs as part of the “campaign”), but would probably be described as “desperate” from one that is losing.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it affects press portrayals of the candidates and party enthusiasm. This is the most important thing here: I still think the default expectation here has been that Obama should be losing. “Defying gravity” is hardly an original motif for this election, after all.

So the view that Obama is going to lose can -- or at least could have -- quickly become the conventional wisdom. If that happens, we would end up with a vicious cycle that looks something like this: The Democratic base becomes downtrodden, its enthusiasm falls, the right’s enthusiasm skyrockets, the likely-voter screens skew more Republican, and Obama falls even further behind in the polls. Instead, we have a campaign where everyone marvels at Obama's constant lead, further adding to the mythos surrounding his supposed inability to lose.

This is why the Oct. 3 debate really might have marked an important, structural change point in the campaign.

As Trende notes, this has an important impact on media coverage.

There are a lot of things Obama doesn't want to be on the front pages of newspapers, from the economy to the Benghazi Massacre, the negligence of that, and the deliberate cover-up. So long as Obama's winning, the press can pretend it's "just reporting the news" by just talking up his winning campaign. That's news, too. Isn't it? And if the press seems to be overcovering the horserace aspect while ignoring Obama's many failures... well, they'll just note "we overcovered the horserace" on November 15th and then go about their business.

But if he's losing, the press is either going to talk about process issues -- Why is he losing? Where did he lose it? -- or these other issues Obama also doesn't want to make headlines.

The Winner's Edit permits the press to hide all that, to focus on Happy Things.

But if he's losing, they don't have that cover. It's either This Bad Thing or That Bad Thing.

Of course, given that Obama's campaign has consisted of deploying a Kill Romney meme every time he gets behind, or close to behind, one has to worry what their last couple of cards are.

A really terrific piece that you'll be poorer for for not reading. Just seems to reveal so much that has been mysterious.

Bonus: Gallup Likely Voting polls began being published today.

They said the polls would "wipe out the president's lead" and result in a tie; they lowballed it (or they said this before last night's polling came in).

It's 49-47, advantage Romney, and their seven-day track still has pre-debate numbers in it from Tuesday and Wednesday of last week. (I assume that most of Wednesday's calls were placed before the 9 PM Eastern debate.)


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posted by Ace at 01:08 PM

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