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The tactical fallacy

Topics: Barack Obama , Democrats , presidential approval , strategy , tactics

More and more pundits are jumping on the Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging bandwagon (for recent examples, see here, here, here, and here). What we're observing is a classic example of what you might call the tactical fallacy. Here's how it works:

1. Pundits and reporters closely observe the behavior of candidates and parties, focusing on the tactics they use rather than larger structural factors.
2. The candidates whose tactics appear to be successful tend to win; conversely, those whose tactics appear to be unsuccessful tend to lose (and likewise with parties).
3. The media concludes that candidates won or lost because of their tactical choices.

The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in '02 to Bush '06, or Obama in '08 to Obama in '09-'10). But that doesn't mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president's party, whether it's a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.

What advocates of the tactical view have failed to do is provide a viable counterfactual -- where is the example of the president whose messaging succeeded despite a similarly poor economy? TNR's John Judis has tried to argue that Reagan was more successful than Obama in 1981-1982 (here and here), but as I have pointed out (here and here), the 1982 election results do not suggest Republicans significantly overperformed and Reagan's approval ratings (both on the economy and overall) were extremely similar to Obama's at the same point in their presidencies.

The reality is that Obama's current standing -- and the rush to blame it on tactical failures -- could be predicted months ago based on structural factors. His approval ratings largely reflect a poor economy. Similarly, Democrats were likely to suffer significant losses in the House no matter what due to the number of seats they currently hold and the fact that it is a midterm election. Nonetheless, expect the tactics-are-everything crowd to be saying "I told you so" on November 3.*

* Bonus prediction: If the economy rebounds before 2012, the media will rediscover the tactical genius of Obama and David Axelrod.

[Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com and Huffington Post]

 

Comments
Mogando669:

the only tactic a$$hole's rod knew how to do is play the race card nonstop until it silences any meaningful debate or criticism

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Gary Kilbride:

Well said. Situational factors overwhelm short term fixation. I deal with that reality every day in sports. Human nature prefers a specific and recent focal point, which is how you get the Swift Boat crew hoisted as the convenient explanation for '04, a cycle in which Bush owned every major foundational edge.

I post on a few progressive sites with young guys in charge. The past two cycles they became remarkably cocky, convinced it was netroots energy and brilliance responsible for the landslides. Often they mocked '70s-'90s Democratic leaders, condemned for unnecessary failure. I annoyed them repeatedly by emphasizing every cycle is dictated by the wind at your back, or in your face. Check Rory McIlroy at St. Andrews a month ago, 63 in the calm first round, 80 in whipping Firth of Forth gales a day later. Same guy, vastly different climate. Politics is no different.

One of those progressive sites is suddenly sending me desperate emails, often daily, with one GOP condemning headline after another. I think he's finally grasped than 2010 is unfortunately not a mirage, and is unleashing every scattergun late salvage job imaginable.

As a Democrat this is exponentially the most depressing cycle since the internet bloomed. I'm not handling it well, hoping to be shocked by a few successes. Luckily college football begins tomorrow. I dropped by tonight only to remind of my long held theme, including comments on this site, that Alaska and Georgia polling is inept, particularly Alaska. That senate primary result can't be considered startling, the way Alaska never captures the strength of the more conservative candidate. I notice Miller leading by 6 or 7 in the early general election polling. Ha. What's the multiplier?

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CompCon:

The best word to describe the Obama reign so far is "over".

He overreached, overspent, overpromised, oversold, was overhyped, overexposed, and overplayed the results of the election. He turned control of the country over to Pelosi and Reid who overdid everything they touched.

He and the democrats crammed despised programs and policies down the voter's throats with the arrogance that he alone knows what is best for people and this country and people should sit back, shut up, cling to their guns and bibles, and let his brilliance rescue the planet from we poor schmucks too stupid to take care of ourselves.

He gets a lot of blame for the current state of the economy because he was handed a trillion dollar blank check and promised the voters that he would use it to create 6 million new jobs. Instead, we lost 3 million more. It failed. That's his failure and he is paying the price for it.

The biggest "tactical" error is that Obama and the democrats don't yet realize that the "blame bush" strategy not only doesn't work any more - it pushes them deeper in the hole. I saw a poll where 19% blame Obama exclusively for the economy right now, and another 39% blame both him and Bush equally. 57% believe he is either totally or equally to blame for our economic problems. He insults those 57% everytime he opens his mouth with yet another "blame bush" speech. It's not a good idea to insult a majority of voters in a year where disgust with government is higher than just about any time in modern history.

If he would get off his high horse, admit that the stimulus was a total failure, and offer a plan B, the democrats might actually be able to keep the house. But instead he is lying about how effective the stimulus was and is pushing for more of the same failed policies.

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boomer40:

CompCon, did you even read this post?

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Aaron_in_TX:

"did you even read this post?"

Probably not, since Nyhan's thesis is basically the democrats wouldn't be doing any better no matter WHAT they did in 09 and 10.

Almost all presidents accomplish 80% of their domestic initiatives in their first two years. If they get re-elected then they have maybe 6 months to push through something else. Obama no doubt is aware of that.

Bush was a slight exception since his presidency effectively restarted on 9/12/01. So he did most of what he was going to do in the first three years - tax cut, medicare part D (that barely passed and used up pretty much all of his domestic political capital - how quickly people forget).

Clinton...tried to do a lot in the first two years and failed at a lot. As a result no remarkable domestic achievements happened during the Clinton presidency. Welfare reform is largely forgotten, and republicans still complain about welfare anyway. Obama has basically accomplished everything Clinton tried and failed to do. I see Clinton being remembered similarly as Calvin Coolidge. Good economic times, didn't do much of anything, personally well-liked (by his supporters), generally a prologue to the more important Bush presidency. He'll mostly be remembered for his impeachment drama. Kind of like how we remember Cleveland only for the illegitimate child drama.

Bush I - major domestic achievements clean air act, ADA, and revenue stabilization (tax increase). All done before 1991.

Reagan - major domestic achievement tax cut, 1981. Mostly FP the rest of his presidency. Again, credited for economic cycle.

Carter - failed to do much of anything domestically, energy reform failure.

Nixon - Crime/Drug crackdowns and environmental legislation (creation of EPA), all passed by 1970.

LBJ - passed a ton...most of his initiatives passed in 65-66 before Vietnam really bogged him down.

Similar with most presidents in the 20th century. FDR somewhat of an exception too since he got a lot done in his 3rd & 4th years.

So don't expect much more signature domestic legislation from Obama. I doubt energy or immigration reform will ever see the light of day. Possibly immigration after re-election if Obama is re-elected. Immigration will likely be something the next president has to work on.

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CompCon:

boomer40:

Yes. It includes this: "His approval ratings largely reflect a poor economy."

That's a pitiful and lame excuse. Obama's biggest problem is Obama, Pelosi, and Reid - not the economy.

I also read between the lines. The author has a reputation of defending, building up, and tearing down opposition of Obama. My take on this article is, "Obama is still a genius - he is just a victim of things beyond his control".

Obama and Axelrod are no geniuses. They know how to run a campaign but don't know how to run a country. That's the tactical failure.

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boomer40:

"Obama's biggest problem is Obama, Pelosi, and Reid - not the economy."

This is just delusional.

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StatyPolly:

Nyhan is easily the weakest and most useless contributor here. He simply lacks intellectual horsepower to detach himself from emotional bonds to his causes.

Even young Harry has already surpassed Nyhan in both style and substance.

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StatyPolly:

If anyone wants to see the real reasons behind Dems downfall, this guy's got it pegged pretty well.

http://freestaterblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/for-democrats-year-of-warning-signs.html

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Crispian:

Mr. Nyhan,

Structural factors are most determinant. We get it. It makes sense. But your fetish for trying to debunk any other explanation is less compelling.

You make some notable errors in your reasoning. For example, in countering comparisons of Reagan and Obama, you offer that "the 1982 election results do not suggest Republicans significantly overperformed."

First of all, Abramowitz's model is based largely on the generic ballot and presidential approval, NOT on the economy. Though the economy impacts those numbers, it is far from clear how much (your friend Sean Trende presented this well with graphs, though your rebuttal focused only on his Obama graphs, ignoring the graphs of 1981-1982 and 1993-1994, showing great variance between approval and the economy). Despite unemployment steadily increasing to 10.4% by November 1982, the GOP lost net 26 seats in the House and net 0 in the Senate.

Secondly, Abromowitz's model supports Judis' claim that the economy was the main determinant in 1982 because Reagan's focus on the economy prevented additional electoral losses despite the actual weakness of that economy. In your March 17th piece you reduce Reagan's stressing of his economic agenda as merely "Reagan's communication style." Judis was talking about WHAT Reagan was saying, not the charismatic way he said it. In contrast, Obama's attention to the economy has appeared fleeting.

In the current cycle, Alan Abramowitz's model is showing some fairly conservative estimates (up until last week he predicted a net gain of 27 GOP seats in the House, now revised to 37 - though unclear what major economic change intervened).

I agree that the "Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging" is unpersuasive (but that still doesn't mean there is not a narrational explanation). As with Reagan, it's not a matter of how the Democrats are speaking, but WHAT they are saying. They are not focusing on the economy in any consistent way. They are focusing on policies that at least a plurality of Americans are ambivalent about or opposed to. Most estimates indicate it will be a tragic year for Democrats.

A purely economic explanation appears inadequate. Policies and expressions of those policies matter, particularly if the public feels the President is out-of-touch.

* Your bonus prediction is correct. Though there is no doubting that the media wants to push that kind of narrative.

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