For political junkies, it’s easy to think that campaign tussles make a difference in presidential elections. Washington was consumed with the story of Mitt Romney the high school bully, but voters could care less—in a recent poll from ABC News and The Washington Post, 90 percent said that it wouldn’t be a factor in their view of the GOP nominee. Likewise, the massive controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage has had zero effect on Massachusetts voters—69 percent say they simply don’t care.
I don’t mean to single out partisans; actual Beltway pundits are also too concerned with gaffes and faux controversies. Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei's assessment of the last month—which has the top spot at POLITICO—describes the Obama campaign as “stumbling out of the gate” and “struggling” with message discipline. It’s everything you would expect from a micro-focus on the election:
Obama, not Mitt Romney, is the one with the muddled message — and the one who often comes across as baldly political. Obama, not Romney, is the one facing blowback from his own party on the central issue of the campaign so far — Romney’s history with Bain Capital. And most remarkably, Obama, not Romney, is the one falling behind in fundraising.
How much of this is remarkable, and how much of this is the usual sturm und drang of a presidential election? Campaigns always see blowback on their messaging, on account of the fact that political parties aren’t monolithic entities. Obama may have had a huge fundraising advantage in 2008, but in a polarized country where Democrats have taken steps to regulate Wall Street and raise taxes on rich people, it’s no surprise that Republicans have suddenly emerged with a fundraising advantage, and the support of interested billionaires. It would be unusual if that weren’t the case.
Buzzfeed has a similar piece—“Not Arrogant Any More”—with similar arguments and similar problems. Is there any actual surprise that Romney has caught up with Obama in the polls? Some Democrats may have shown undue confidence, but it’s been obvious that this would become a close election as soon as Romney clinched the Republican nomination. To wit, Santorum’s departure from the race was followed—almost immediately—by Romney’s complete consolidation of the Republican base. Ultimately, his tactical victories in the horse race are less important than the fact that he is a major party nominee in a closely divided country.
Buzzfeed plays up the Obama campaign’s mistakes, citing the Cory Booker-led backlash against the attacks on Bain Capital, but for all the controversy, the president himself is in the same position now as he was last month—his job approval stands at 47 percent, with a small lead over Romney. Between this and middling economic growth, Obama is a slight favorite for reelection, which is where he’s been for nearly six months.
It’s an election year, so it’s simply a fact that pundits will latch on to every gaffe as if voters were actually paying attention to the minutiae of presidential politics. But it’s always good to remember that they aren’t, at all.