At the NYT, Richard W. Stevenson claims that it is:
[T]he months between the end of the primary season and the formal start of the general election at the conventions are an especially perilous period for candidates in Mr. Romney’s position.
It is then that challengers to an incumbent are most susceptible to being defined on terms other than their own, because despite months on the campaign trail they are still not yet terribly well-known by many Americans. Unflattering characteristics, new elements of their record, gaffes and embarrassing biographical details – all can take on outsize importance as rival campaigns labor through the spring and summer to create perceptions that stick with voters through Election Day.
The risks of failing to win the spring-summer narrative battle are substantial. Just ask Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole or John Kerry, all of whom failed to establish strong positive images during this period and allowed their opponents to brand them in ways they never overcame.
Oddly enough, the WaPo’s Chris Cillizza recently noted that in elections with an incumbent since 1980, Mondale, Dole and Kerry all had high favorable ratings and lost, while Bill Clinton won with middling favorable ratings. And unlike Stevenson, Cillizza actually shows you the numbers that back him up. Stevenson is engaged in some zombie journalism about the effectiveness of negative campaigning. At least Cillizza was good enough to state his premises openly, even if he tended to bury them, e.g.:
Political scientists would have you believe that the data is determinative. But the data is subject to how each side conducts their respective campaign.
Actually, political scientists who stress that campaigns tend to turn on the fundamentals almost always concede that campaigns matter. Their argument is simply that they don’t matter as much as journalists who make their living covering them think. Mondale, Dukakis, Dole and Kerry all ran against incumbents (or a sitting Veep) who benefited from recovering or healthy economies. The only winning candidate in those cycles who substantially outperformed what the economy would suggest was Clinton, who still failed to reach 50% of the vote.
BTW, this problem is not limited to political coverage. Last week, the NYT magazine profiled Joe Weisenthal, the lead financial blogger for Business Insider, including this anecdote:
Last summer, amid rising concern that the economy would tip back into recession, Weisenthal repeatedly highlighted contrarian chunks of evidence suggesting that we were actually on the verge of stronger growth. It was a lonely view for a long time. It was also correct.
In a post last November titled “Everyone Is Wrong About What Is Driving the Market These Days,” Weisenthal reproduced a Google search showing a slew of articles describing the stock market as “headline-driven,” meaning that prices were responding to the latest news. Then he showed a chart he created illustrating the close relationship between movements in stock prices and a basic economic indicator.
“So it’s a ‘headline-driven market’?” he wrote. “Nah, not really. . . . The market is just moving with the fundamentals, week in and week out. The headlines are mostly a distraction.”
Most political journalists figured out that the rise in Obama’s approval rating had something to do with this. However, they still seem trapped into pretending that when the real swing voters finally start paying attention to the campaign, the result will not largely converge with the fundamentals. The history of head-to-head polling suggests that about half of what we see now is noise, that the curve mostly flattens out at this stage of an election and that polls don’t really start to suggest the outcome earlier than August. The evidence for mid-May being a quiet turning point in the campaign is wafer-thin.