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The Presidential Campaigns Didn't Really Matter

Why Obama and Romney could have called it quits after the convention
Barack Obama at a presidential rally in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 29, 2008 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Barack Obama at a presidential rally in Raleigh, North Carolina on October 29, 2008 (PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Political scientists argue Americans have all the information we need to make our voting decisions long before the campaign begins. So, we can—almost—call presidential elections while its still summertime. Why then do we have to endure long fall months of endless political rhetoric? Turns out, there is one simple reason.

Most of us who are interested in politics are relieved. Whether or not we liked the outcome of the election, we are simply happy not to have to read and hear endless news about the two campaigns anymore. But we probably could have tuned out altogether while it was still beach season—well before either of the nominating conventions.

We all know that most voters decidewho to vote for well before the campaigns begin. In political science research, this is called the “minimal effects” thesis. Basically the vast majority of the voters vote how we would expect them to long before the election. The first study to investigate this phenomenon focused on voters during the 1940 election. Researchers found that only 8 percent of voters changed their preference over the course of the campaign. In 70 years, not much has changed.

As voters, we are not as foolish as political pundits seem to think we are. The parties are fairly clear and consistent about their positions on issues that the public cares about. While people decry the institutional problems caused by polarization, it does have some positive consequences for a voter’s ability to decipher which candidate/party is closer to their issue positions. So all voters need to do to pick a party (or candidate) is figure out what issue motivates them most (abortion, taxes) and which party is closest to their beliefs on that issue—once they’ve done that, they can stop paying attention and still vote as if they had been.

But about 33 percent of the public identifies as "independent."

If you ask people what party they identify with, about a third say independent, but when pressed, we learn that few are truly making their decisions candidate by candidate or election by election. The arenas break down as such: people that consider themselves “strong Democrats” and “strong Republicans,” “weak Democrats” and “weak Republicans,” and independents who, when asked, admit that they lean (fairly heavily) toward one party. Voters in these categories are unlikely to vote for the other party. Only about 11 percent of the country really does not favor a political party.

What is more important is that the word “independent” does not mean moderate. Many people who identify as independents are far more conservative or liberal than their partisan counterparts. The remainder of the 11% of Independents know little about politics and have a hard time understanding political issues. In the end, the exit polls show, those undecided independent voters tend to make up their minds late in the game, but more importantly about half of them vote for Democrats and about half for Republicans. Late deciders don’t tend to favor one candidate over the other, they just make their decisions closer to the election. So much for the importance of the campaign.

WE CAN CALL THE ELECTION without ever knowing what the public “thinks” about the candidates long before the election. In October of 2008, Alan Abramowitz, of Emory University, published an article in the journal PS: Political Science and Politicsforecasting that Barack Obama would receive 54.3% of the vote, and John McCain would receive 45.7 percent. Of course in order for something to be published in October, Abramowitz had to do his calculations far in advance, and indeed the numbers he used in his model were generated over the summer. The actual election result was 52.87 percent to 45.60 percent. Obama received 1.43 percentage points less than predicted (John McCain received .01 percentage points less). This year, again in October, Abramowitz published a follow-up article. His prediction: 50.5% for Obama, 49.5 percent for Romney. The most up-to-date popular vote count as of this writing had Obama at 50.37 percent and Romney at 48.03 percent.

When he put forward his prediction, Abramowitz’s one caveat was not about the effect of the campaign or the candidates—it was about possible change in real GDP in the months after he put forward his prediction, from the second to the third quarter of 2012. His model computes the approval rating of the president at the end of June, the change in real GDP in the second quarter of 2012, the advantage of incumbency, and the level of polarization in the country. These are fairly static numbers—only real GDP can change drastically. It turns out we can call the election over the summer and unless GDP changes drastically. The campaigns are unlikely to affect the outcome of the popular vote. So even with all the snafus (Romney’s 47 percent comment, Obama’s first debate performance) and triumphs (Romney’s first debate, the President’s handling of Hurricane Sandy), the American public seems unaffected. Political scientists argue that this is largely due to our ability to filter information. If we hear something positive about our preferred candidate, it reinforces our feelings, but if we hear something negative, we are likely to just dismiss it.

SO, DID THE CAMPAIGN MATTER? Well, according to the best statistical models out there—no. This isn’t to say that Obama should have sat the race out as Romney dragged himself across the country. Indeed, if the campaigns were not equally run by the top professionals in the field with endless cash on hand, one campaign would matter. But when the campaigns have equal access to financial and intellectual capital, both could call it a day after the convention. Their activities simply cancel each other out. We could have all ignored the news since August and the election results would have come out the same.

There is one caveat though: as all of this evidence shows, elections are not won by convincing people to vote for a candidate for whom they are not previously inclined. The importance of the campaigns is to get more of their supporters to the polls than the other team. To paraphrase one Obama campaign aide, presidential appearances have nothing to do with convincing voters, they are about rallying the troops and keeping supporters passionate so that they actually turn out on Election Day (and bring their friends).

Which means we political junkies who were always going to go vote have wasted a lot of time watching and fussing over campaign activities—not to mention listening to a lot of hot air on pundit TV. None of the noise likely had much effect on the election at all.