The Six Dirty Secrets of Presidential Politics in 2012
It is amazing to me how many political opinions/predictions from seemingly intelligent people are so clearly wrong and how little it seems to matter to them or anyone else in the punditsphere when this is inevitably proven to be true.
The reasons why this is the case are many, but at the core of this phenomenon is the fact that there are several basic realities of presidential politics that appear to have somehow failed to pierce the bubble/echo chamber of the media elites. These are, if you will, the "dirty little secrets" of presidential elections in general and 2012 in particular.
You simply can't properly evaluate what will happen this November without first understanding that:
Ignorant votes rule
No matter how politically incorrect it may to say out loud, there is absolutely no doubt that the voters who determine who wins our presidential elections are frighteningly lacking in even basic knowledge of the issues or the candidates.
While this has probably always been the case, the evidence is overwhelming that, for a variety of reasons (most notably the fragmentation and "fluff-ification" of our celebrity-driven media), this problem is getting worse every cycle. In 2008, I commissioned two scientific polls as part of my documentary of the media coverage of the election which proved just how incredibly ignorant of fundamental facts the voters of each candidate were.
It is quite clear that the country is basically split politically into thirds. One third is known in overly polite circles as "independent" or "casual" voters. In truth, these are people who don't pay attention and don't really care about current events. Unfortunately, because the other two thirds of "partisans" tend to balance each other out, it is these voters (yes, regrettably, they do indeed vote) who usually decide the winner in presidential elections.
Because the media has by far the greatest influence over this group (because they get their political "news" almost entirely from headlines, comedians, and friends), they went for Obama in a huge way in 2008 and, to a lesser extent, probably will again this time.
Issues/Ideology Mean Very Little
Thanks to "dirty little secret" number one, I find it almost hilarious that so many political commentators still desperately hang on to the delusion that voters (at least the ones who matter) make their decisions the same way that said commentators do. This reminds of me of the identical fallacy which occurs when a woman interprets the actions of a man based on the erroneous belief that his brain works like hers does.
These ignorant voters don't delve deeply into the candidates' record/positions to decide which one is closest to their views. They have no real ideology. Instead, they make their choices based mostly on feeling, and often that doesn't even mean a sense about each of the candidates.
Instead, these people tend to vote based on which decision will make them feel better about themselves. Ironically, that usually means which side will make these "stupid" people feel as if they have made the "smart" selection.
A glance at recent history proves this point. In 2008, there was no doubt that the media had convinced the "middle third" that Obama was the "wise" choice. In 2004, despite the media's best efforts, the middle third felt like Bush 43 would keep us safer in a post-9/11 world. In 2000, there was no real sense as to which candidate was the "wise" option, and it basically ended in a tie. In 1996, thanks to the economy being good, they deemed Bill Clinton worthy of a second term. In 1992, thanks to a misperception of the economy, they simply felt like three straight Republican terms was enough.
Now, if one candidate is perceived as being ideologically outside the mainstream (which, thanks to a media-created matrix, can really happen only to Republicans), then that perception will very likely impact the way that the "middle third" decides which candidate is the "wise" pick. But this usually won't be because of the candidate's actual views, but instead because of the narrative that his or her ideology creates (for instance, Rick Santorum would get crushed not because most people disagree with him about gay rights, but rather because his misunderstood views on the issue would create the impression that he was outside the mainstream and therefore not the "wise" alternative).
The bottom line as this relates to 2012 is that the notion that Mitt Romney would be at a disadvantage against President Obama because he is supposedly a "right-leaning moderate" going up against a "left-leaning moderate" is just silly. As long as there is no conservative third-party candidate, Obama himself will single-handily produce a near-100% conservative voter turnout for Romney, regardless of how his ideology is perceived.
This is also why Newt Gingrich is so unelectable, especially against Obama. All these voters would ever really know about him is that he is a fat, old, angry white male, with two ex-wives, who resigned as speaker of the House because he got Clinton impeached while he himself was having an affair. Game, set, match.
The 2010 Midterms Are Largely Irrelevant
The biggest political misunderstanding that most hardcore conservative voters have is that presidential elections are pretty much the same as the midterm variety. This is like comparing the NFL's Super Bowl with the Pro Bowl. Even though they are both football games, it would be difficult for them to be more unlike each other.
Midterms are local and state elections with almost no national media narrative/impact or principal individuals and where the turnout is usually pretty light. Presidential elections are 50 separate state elections with a distinct national narrative set by the media where there are two much-focused-on individuals and where turnout out is much higher than normal.
In short, midterms are based largely on ideology/party affiliation, while presidential matchups are about mostly about the feelings of people who don't follow politics.
This misconception has caused a huge problem for conservatives in this cycle because the Tea Party people seem to think that, based on the relative success of the 2010 campaign, beating Obama should be rather easy. This, in turn, has caused them to consider a number of candidates who have no shot at winning and who would ordinarily never even be considered for the task of trying to bring down the Obama monster.
In the end, it is likely to create enormous disappointment when Romney wins the nomination based mostly on the idea that he is the most (only) electable alternative. I also fear that, should Romney lose, the incredibly false lesson that will be "learned" (much like with John McCain in 2008) will be that we lost because we nominated a "moderate."
The Liberal Media's Influence Is Increasing
The popular perception among most commentators is that the media's general influence is on the decline and that, therefore, liberals are slowly losing one of their most powerful political weapons. I have devoted most of the last four years of my life to proving that this premise is patently false.
The counterargument to mine goes something like this: because of fragmentation, the audience sizes of the traditional liberal news outlets is shrinking, and thanks to Fox News, talk radio, and the internet, we are able to get our message out around the old gatekeepers.
This might very well be the most dangerous fallacy in the conservative movement today.
There is no doubt that fragmentation has dramatically altered the entire media landscape for the worse (except for the Golf and History Channels) and that audiences for individual outlets are indeed getting smaller. The problem is that numerous factors (including having largely gotten away with singehandedly electing Obama in 2008) have freed up these same liberal outlets to allow their true selves to really come pouring out without a hint of self-restraint.
After what they so overtly did for Obama and against Sarah Palin in 2008, why would they ever go back to just the relatively tame "bias" of the Nixon and Reagan years? The referees have gone from putting a finger on the scales of justice to flat out sitting on them, and yet there have been almost no repercussions. Even though they don't have nearly the same weight/power that they used to, they are happy to simply use a much greater percentage of what they still possess in order to get the job done.
Conversely, it is a myth that Fox News, talk radio, and the internet allow conservatives to get our truth out. In reality, at best, these outlets allow the previously converted to feel better about what they already believe. At worst, they provoke the other side into justifying a more overt bias in order to "balance" things out.
The ultimate example of this comes in the way the cable news networks have positioned themselves. MSNBC is far more left than FNC is to the right, and now, significantly left CNN is somehow allowed to be perceived to be in the "middle."
It is important to note here that the definition of "media outlets" which influence presidential elections now goes far beyond the "news" variety. You can actually argue that entertainment media has even more control these days than news divisions do (assuming you can even tell the difference between them anymore).
Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Bill Maher, Saturday Night Live, and other "entertainment" outlets all have incredible power to create the narrative of a presidential election (just ask Palin), and they are highly unlikely to do so in a way that would ever harm Obama.
One of the many reasons why Romney is the only Republican candidate with a chance is because he is the only one who would be the target of mostly harmless jokes (teasing about how rich, straight-laced, and boring he is won't be nearly as devastating what they would easily come up with for Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, or Perry). Interestingly, this past week's attempt by SNL to parody Romney in exactly that way bombed dramatically.
The 2000 election provided an important lesson in this area. Interviews since then indicate that SNL staff thought that they were destroying Bush 43 by making him seem stupid. Instead, they actually helped his candidacy by making him seem way cooler and more likable than Al Gore, whom they portrayed as incredibly annoying.
The media testified on behalf of Obama in 2008. They are simply not going to let him be a one-term disaster if they can possibly help it.
Which leads directly to the next "secret"...
Obama Will Be Much Tougher to Beat Than Perceived
Even if the economy doesn't improve (or at least provide enough data for the media to manipulate into making it seem as if it is), Obama has at least a 50% chance at reelection. This assessment may be shocking to many conservatives, but it is based on sound analysis.
Incredibly, even now, both Obama and Romney are almost exactly even when it comes to net approval ratings, with the only difference being that a few more people have made up their minds about Obama than have with Romney. The head-to-head polling data also indicates that they are approximately tied.
Taking out an incumbent is always difficult (even Bush 43 improved on his 2000 vote with an unpopular war and a partisan press working against him), but especially given two elements that seem to have been forgotten by overly optimistic conservatives.
The first is that the number-one argument (at least as approved by the cowardly McCain campaign) against Obama in 2008 was that he lacked any executive experience. Well, he now has essentially served four years in the most difficult executive position in the world. To the "middle third" voters, this weakness has now become a strength (as has, by the way, his lack of a foreign policy resume, which now boasts the killing of Osama bin Laden on it).
Second, "middle third" voters hate one party controlling all the levers of power, especially now, when trust in politicians and Congress is at all-time lows.
Republicans currently control the House and seem very likely to take over the Senate. This is a reality, I am quite certain, of which (unlike 2008, when my polls indicated that most Obama voters wrongly thought that Republicans were in control) the media will make very sure every "casual" voter is made painfully aware. The fact that they would be able to claim that a Romney victory would allow the "crazy" (and increasingly unpopular) Tea Party coalition to "take over" will only exacerbate the negative impact this will have on undecided voters.
The only reason why Romney has any real chance at all is because he is uniquely positioned to win in New Hampshire, Nevada, and Michigan, all of which are critical to Obama's various paths to 270 Electoral College votes.
But this all assumes that the economy stays basically where it is between now and November. If it is perceived as really getting better, then Romney will almost certainly lose barring some sort of significant scandal, which, given the incredibly high standards the media would use to judge any possible indiscretions, would seem to be highly unlikely.
The reason why Romney is indeed the most electable Republican left is because he makes the race more of a pure referendum on Obama than any of the others (though not as much as a Tim Pawlenty would have). This means that, to a large degree, his destiny is not in his own hands, and his candidacy is at the mercy of largely ignorant voters' feelings about the economy.
The only other plausible scenario here is that Iran, Iraq, and Syria explode to the point where foreign policy becomes a much bigger issue than anyone currently expects. This, of course, does not play into Romney's strengths, and unless he took the bold/risky step of picking Condoleezza Rice as his VP (and she surprisingly accepted), it would be hard to see how he could fully take advantage of this shift in the campaign's narrative.
The Conservative Media Has an Incentive for Obama to Win
The "dirtiest" little secret on my list is one that, because it is so obvious, I am astonished has not been mentioned in any significant way.
In my experience, the most universal misconception that conservatives have about politics is that most of those in the "conservative media" or those who are "activists" are motivated primarily because they believe in the cause. Unfortunately, for many reasons too numerous to get into in this space, this is simply not the case. The vast majority of the decisions made in the conservative media and by activists are decided by business considerations rather than by what is best for the cause.
In other words, it is ratings, traffic, and, ultimately, revenue/job security which dictate a huge portion (not all) of the content produced by Fox News, the Drudge Report, and talk radio, and it is donations which determine how most activists react. This is why Sarah Palin's irrelevant presidential tease and Herman Cain's always-doomed campaign were given so much more attention than they deserved. It is also a significant part of why the "Tea Party movement" evolved as it did.
It is also why there is a very good chance that many people in both groups will effectively lay down their arms in the battle to unseat Obama.
The reasoning behind this controversial declaration is quite simple. Those entities have absolutely no financial incentive for Obama to lose and, if fact, have a profound disincentive against facilitating his defeat.
The Obama presidency has been a financial windfall for all of them. Fox's ratings have never been higher, Drudge's traffic has never been better (which is rather "ironic," given how blatantly he protected Obama during the 2008 primaries), talk radio has been at least temporarily saved, and dozens of "Tea Party" groups have raised millions of dollars with which to line the pockets of their organizers and consultant friends. If Obama loses, not only does all of that stop, but the prospect of possibly eight long years of being "obligated" to support a rather boring Mitt Romney with no "boogieman" to attack must scare the daylights out of them.
To be clear, there will be no overt conspiracy. There is no need for there to be one. These are all people who live their daily lives based on pursuing their own interests, and many of them will have no problem coming to the conclusion that an Obama loss would be a terrible thing for their personal "cause" all on their own.
For those skeptical of my rather cynical hypothesis, I offer two quick examples.
If those I speak of really were primarily devoted to the cause of beating Obama, every conservative in the country would have been activated to support Pennsylvania's proposal to alter the way that it allocates its Electoral College votes because it would have made Obama's reelection almost impossible. Instead, the proposal got almost no attention, and the idea was unceremoniously dropped.
Similarly, some have compared the attacks on Romney's Bain record to what happened regarding Obama's "Rev. Wright" issue during his successful primary run. The big difference (other than the Wright issue being far more legitimate), of course, is that Hillary Clinton did not take up the attacks on the Wright connection, while Newt Gingrich has led the charge on the Bain issue.
While Gingrich has been criticized by many conservatives for his actions here, there has not been nearly the universality of ferocity of condemnation on the right as there would have been on the left had Hillary done the same to Obama (which is probably why she never dared to go there).
The primary reason for this is that the conservative elite are simply not as willing to go to the mat for Romney as their counterparts on the left were (and still will be) for Obama.
In a bizarre way, I am coming to see the coming Romney candidacy much as I view the Iraq War. It was a good idea; was based on seemingly sound, though ultimately flawed, assumptions; and was executed well under very difficult circumstances, but it ended up being doomed in public perception largely because too many weak-kneed conservatives weren't willing to pay the price to achieve ultimate victory.
In other words, if every conservative power broker sincerely wanted to defeat Obama as they claim they do and acted based on that as their primary priority, then, with any luck, Romney would win. Unfortunately, based on my extensive knowledge of these people, I have zero faith that most of them will be there for the cause when it really counts.
Therefore, the most likely scenario is that Obama gets re-elected, the country is harmed, and many so-called "conservatives" will smile.