Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Can a candidate win by framing the election?

Yesterday's post addressed the issue-attention cycle, and how the need for news that's, you know, new, will shift attention to different issues over time.  Issues can, in principle, affect electoral outcomes.  As I have referenced before, the critical concept in political science is what we call "issue ownership."  Some issues are commonly thought to be Democratically-advantaged, and others Republican-advantaged.  As a general rule, voters trust Democrats on issues like Social Security, and as a general rule, voters trust Republicans on issues like international security.  If voters are thinking largely about the idea of privatizing Social Security, they will skew Democratic, whereas if they are thinking about ISIS, they will probably skew Republican.

There are two questions this raises.  First, to what degree must we pay attention to the day-to-day news cycle, assessing the implications of every news story for the horse race?  Second, to what degree can a campaign control the outcome by controlling the news cycle?

I've given you my answer to the first many times.  Not much at all.  Short of a 9/11-scale event, the day-to-day events in an election cycle are largely meaningless, and Sides & Vavreck's The Gamble is still right that most so-called "game-changing" events in a campaign do nothing.  Even Romney's 47% comment did roughly squat.  Yes, I obsess over the news, but I'm a sick, sick person.

The second is the harder question, and I'll refer to another important component of Sides & Vavreck's book.  Most campaigns are basically a tug-of-war.  Each candidate attempts to draw voters' attention, via the media, to the issues that most benefit them.  The problem is that since each candidate does it, unless one candidate is dramatically better at it, the net effect is that they basically cancel each other out.  Thus, in the end, the only things that really matter all that much are the fundamentals, like the state of the economy.  Sides & Vavreck aren't quite as much on the fundamentalist end as I am, but few are.

What happens, though, when one campaign is incompetent?  I have asked before whether Trump is a political virtuoso, or the equivalent of "The Spice Girls," meaning a talentless hack whose schtick happened to appeal to one segment at one time.  At least Tony Clifton is entertaining, if you are a mean-spirited person like me.

Trump's campaign is showing all signs of gross ineptitude.  He finally got around to firing the campaign manager who assaulted a reporter, right after responding to a mass shooting/terrorist attack/hate crime by congratulating himself, and on and on and on.  His own party leaders are distancing themselves from him.  Paul Ryan has raised the idea of suing Trump as president.  Trump suggested that the drunken patrons of Pulse should have been armed, and shot up the place, and Wayne LaPierre responded by saying that Trump had gone too far.  The RNC is currently debating whether or not to change the rules to steal the nomination at the convention even though Trump didn't just get a plurality of the delegates-- he got a majority.

Right now, Trump looks like the most inept candidate we have ever seen. When he insisted that a judge be removed from his case solely on the basis of ethnicity, I pondered whether or not it was a Todd Akin-level mistake.  We're running a social science experiment.

If it is possible for one candidate to be too weak to set the agenda, it will be Trump.  If that advantages his opponent, HRC will win an election that the Democrats have no business winning.  The Democrats have won two in a row, and the economy is growing only tepidly.  However, if this is truly a mismatch, then Trump's ineptitude will allow HRC to frame the election in a beneficial way, and steal one for the Dems.

What would that frame be?  Competence.  As I wrote before, this is all about "valence."  If campaign competence matters, HRC will frame the election around the "valence" issue of policy competence (a distinction I take from Walter Stone's research with varying co-authors whose names I don't feel like looking up-- sorry), and win an election the Dems have no business winning.  Otherwise, the contest to frame the election is just a game of tug-of-war where everything cancels out, and we come down to the state of the economy.

I would like to thank the Republican Party for helping me run an experiment that we could never get through IRB* approval.  Thanks, guys!

*Institutional Review Board:  any research on human subjects must be reviewed in advance by the researcher's IRB to ensure that no harm will come to human subjects.  Bunch'a Killjoys...

Incidentally, can't wait for the new season of Killjoys...

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