The Campaign Silly Season Is On

With federal elections fewer than four months away, we have entered the period of immense political spin aimed at swaying momentum, media, and support.  Both candidates and parties seek every opportunity to color our thinking on the outcomes.

Much, if not all, should be ignored.

1. Ignore partisan stories claiming wave momentum.

We won't really know if 2018 is a wave election until it occurs, when polls close Nov. 6.  In the last 21 election midterms, the president's party lost an average of 30 House and four Senate seats.  If history repeats, Democrats will control the new Congress with a five-vote margin (provided Democrats lose no seats), and the Senate will flip to 53-47.  But historical comparison cannot be applied to this unique election cycle.  Both House and Senate Democrats have a significant number of open seats and endangered incumbents that will flip to the GOP.  Some data suggest an increased turnout by Democrats, but take note: many of these sources also predicted a Clinton presidential victory.  Moreover, the aggressive, nasty attacks and name-calling against Trump-supporters may just make Trump voters less responsive to surveys, fearful of blowback.  These voters will stay silent but show up on Election Day.  At least one political commentator, Barry Casselman, has made compelling arguments for a red surge in November.  We just can't tell and won't know what a volatile electorate will do within booming economic prosperity.

2. Selected survey results reveal little about the electorate's real choices.

We will hear and read about polling surveys that predict success or failure for a candidate or party.  While I see surveys as an important tool for campaign victory, they are less reliable than in the past.  One piece of data tells us nothing.  Sample size, question type, question placement, date in the field, and how the poll is administered (was it online, or did you hear the voice of a person or of a computer?) can all impact results.  Campaigns often just want to proclaim the good news to create a burst of attention that cannot be sustained.  You need a credible pattern for surveys to be useful.

3. Employment recruiting tells us little about the November elections.

I saw a media story recently in which sources said former Democrat Hill staffers, now in the private sector, were insisting that businesses are anticipating Senate and House Democratic victories because they are seeking high-profile staffers.  The sources made the argument that businesses are eager to hire Democrats to be ready for the legislative switch.  There were no specifics – no companies mentioned, no analysis, no serious Republican lobbyists discussing employment trends.  Moreover, the consultants quoted had obvious self-interest by being public with their partisan viewpoint.  During every election cycle, knowledgeable and prominent staffers leave Capitol Hill and enter the advocacy arena.  A few hires really tell us nothing about the election.  I interact with the business community and see no wholesale change in hiring patterns that lean toward a specific party, let alone indicate that a wave is approaching.

4. Shifts in momentum due to single events are difficult to ascertain.

Social media can make one campaign event consequential.  But there is so much information clutter that an event can also get lost in the noisy barrage we all face.  There are 350,000 tweets per minute, 300 hours of YouTube video uploaded every minute, 700 million new photos on Facebook per day, and 60 million photos uploaded on Instagram daily.  Even if a campaign has a powerful moment, it might get lost when communicated to the electorate.  It is hard to predict what will be commonly seen, let alone remembered, on Election Day.  Creating shifts in momentum is much more difficult than in the past, when a single, pivotal event could tip the balance.

5. Reserving media offers little insight into final advertising decisions.  We will all get communications from campaigns and parties touting media buys to signal their election priorities.  Consider many to be "taints," as strategists of both parties may not want to signal true intent to the opposition.  "Reserving" time often does not mean purchasing time; it can be used as a tactic to block the access of other campaigns to better audience programs.  My first experience with this effective technique was in my college years, when former Minnesota Sen. Rudy Boschwitz successfully ran for Senate in 1978.  His campaign kept the Wendell Anderson campaign off balance with their ultimate media purchases, part of the ultimate Boschwitz strategy and victory.  Today, the strategy has become refined and deliberate, so it must be taken with a grain of salt.

6. Most Americans don't focus on specifics of the campaign narrative.

Living as we do in the U.S. political epicenter, we are obsessed with campaigns and elections.  But America isn't.

Many voters make their actual decisions within the last 72 hours before the polls actually open.  However, institutions that employ former campaign activists view all policy positions, nuanced statements, and media releases – literally every mention of politics – as impacting voters.  Republicans are emboldened by some Democrats advocating for the elimination of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and border controls.  Democrats, blinded by their disgust at President's Trump's election, fulminate about every tweet he sends.  But history tells us that many Americans really don't trust politicians or government, or appreciate partisan histrionics about literally everything.  They prefer less anxiety from politics.

At our recent neighborhood Fourth of July celebration, I was honored to welcome everyone, and I chose to quote poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.: "One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, One Nation evermore!"  Many neighbors thanked me for the quote and referenced their unhappiness with excessive focus and commentary on politics and policy, saying they are more interested in enjoying life not centered on government.

It is important that we disregard much of the partisan clutter that attempts to confuse good political campaign analysis and more objective observation.  Don't be taken in by candidate or party P.R. as an attempt to sway your convictions, no matter what party you support.  Withstand manipulation.  Better conversations will be had, and better decisions will be made.  Your level of angst will also be lower.

Dr. David Rehr is a professor of public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.  He is the former CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA).

Graphic credit: Nick Youngson, Creative Commons.