Voters do not know very much

Much has been said of Romney’s basic lack of concern about facts in this campaign. All campaigns bend facts, misrepresent things, and occasionally lie, but few do so with the boldness of Romney. After picking Paul Ryan, Romney’s campaign, in a Rove-esque maneuver, blitzed Obama over Medicare. The campaign claimed Obama took money from Medicare to pay from Obamacare, when all it really did was reduce reimbursement rates for doctors, thereby saving money. The GOP convention decided to go with “we built it” as its slogan, a response to an out-of-context Obama quote from earlier this year. Finally, the GOP convention and Romney has claimed Obama has removed work requirements for welfare, which is false.

Amplifying the fascination around these lies is the fact that when confronted with the untruths, Romney’s own pollster replied “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” All sorts of bloggers have been writing on the phenomenon of a post-truth campaign. Jonathan Chait has a good piece as does Brian Beutler. The real interesting question that comes out of Romney’s move here is whether this strategy will work. Can you tell lies, explicitly say that you do not care that they are lies, and get away with it? Will voters catch on? Will they even care?

Romney’s campaign is doubtlessly counting on the fact that most Americans know very little about even basic political facts, let alone complicated policy issues. If Romney and his associates claim that Obama stole money from Medicare, how many people know enough about the internal funding moves of Obamacare to realize it’s nonsense? Very few.

More than that, consider how one would even go about figuring out whether that’s true or not. There are prominent newspapers that have explained the Medicare situation on their blogs, but I doubt very seriously that reaches a big chunk of voters. Perhaps some newspapers will debunk it in their actual texts, but how many people read those, especially low-information independents? I imagine very few.

Additionally, if you watch right-wing media — and I watch a ton of it — you would know that it not only touts the Republican line, it also tries to inoculate its viewers against other media outlets. A great chunk of right-wing coverage is spent telling its viewers that all other information channels are liberal propaganda, and are not to be believed. For people in that camp, even outlets that reveal and explain the lies cannot actually change their mind. They don’t believe those channels tell the truth: only the right-wing ones do.

For right-wingers that are clever enough to figure out these are lies, does anyone think they actually care? Surely they will just chalk it up to the kind of things you need to say to win over the “dumb masses,” but still support the GOP for other reasons. Ultimately, I am not sure this will really cost Romney much. Most hardcore right-wingers will never believe that he is misleading them because they disregard the information streams that point that out. Hardcore right-wingers that realize he is misleading will vote for him anyways. Finally, voters know notoriously little, especially about policy minutiae, and the wishy-washy folks who might go either way pay attention the least.

On Paul Ryan’s vice presidential candidacy

Mitt Romney picked Paul Ryan for his vice president. The office of the vice president is almost entirely irrelevant; so it’s not clear why this really matters. Paul Ryan’s most notable “achievement” is his proposed budget. The budget is an absolute train wreck that doubtlessly owes its provenance to Ryan’s comical affection for Ayn Rand. It increases taxes on the poor, decreases taxes on the rich, ends Medicare, and shifts health care costs onto the elderly, among other things. Romney has come out in support of the Ryan plan, even as he has advocated against certain pieces of it at times (for example, eliminating the capital gains tax).

You might think choosing a vice presidential candidate whose only real fame comes from an absolutely heinous budget proposal would be a problem for Romney. However, most people hardly pay attention to politics and certainly not policy minutiae. More than that, when focus groups are actually confronted with the content of Paul Ryan’s plan, they simply refuse to believe it is real.

For example, when Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed “ending Medicare as we know it” — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.

If voters refuse to believe what Democrats will truthfully say about Paul Ryan’s budget, then it cannot be a political liability. If the above-mentioned focus group is any indication, voters will indeed refuse to believe Ryan’s proposal says what it says. As bizarre as it sounds, Ryan’s budget may be so bad and unconscionable that truthful representations of it will just be shrugged off as political rhetoric.

h/t Jonathan Chait

Political advertising reception and what it means for democracy

In the aftermath of Citizens United, outside political spending has become unleashed. This new political reality troubles many, especially those on the left. With no checks on outside political spending, those with the most money can spend an unlimited amount of money to influence elections. We’ve seen how ugly this can get with the recent revelations about Joe Ricketts plan to unleash waves of race-baiting advertisements against Barack Obama.

How we should understand the electoral terrain after Citizens United is a matter of some controversy. Those of more radical persuasions point out that wealthy interests have always dominated political campaigns. To pretend that Citizens United changed the nature of political influence is to do just that: pretend. Concomitant with this view is the belief that differential political influence is an unavoidable feature of an economically unequal society. Those who have more money will always use their money to dominate politics, and use the state apparatus to become even richer.

Liberals and progressives understand things a bit differently. While many might concede some of the anti-democratic problems with inequality, they argue that unequal political influence can be curbed to some degree. Caps on outside spending might not totally level the electoral playing field, but it might make it more level. Publicly-financed election systems might not eliminate more discreet forms of kickbacks, but it would be an improvement.

Underlying this whole discussion about electoral spending is the unstated assumption that political advertising actually works. Although not usually a point of contention, the evidence offered in favor of this view tends to be pretty simplistic. Commentators will point to close congressional races where outside spenders ran hundreds of thousands of dollars of ads in the last few weeks, tiling the election in one direction. Although not rigorous, such cases at least present plausible stories. On the flipside, there is rigorous psychological evidence suggesting that political ads do have an impact on voter perception, but that such impact wears off after a short time.

It seems certain that political advertisement must have at least some marginal impact. The idea that no voter has ever been moved to cast a vote in one direction or another from political advertising seems preposterous. But the size of the marginal impact is really significant for questions about democracy. If the marginal impact is quite small — only a few voters are swayed by such ads — then unequal electoral spending is a problem for democracy and the less well off, but not as significant a problem as some suggest.

If the marginal impact of political ads is very large, then that poses not only a significant problem for democracy, but also a challenge to the viability of democracy itself. What does it say about the viability of democracy when large numbers of people can be moved to vote by 30-second ads lacking any real substance? If political ads have such significant effects, that would suggest that many voters are very manipulable. If voters are that manipulable, then equalizing electoral spending does not seem to really fix the democratic problem. If manipulable and unsophisticated voters still exist, what do their votes actually tell us about their political will?

All things equal, more equal electoral spending is better than less. But the only reason unequal electoral spending could have such a unfair impact in elections is if large swaths of the electorate lack any sort of political sophistication, leaving themselves open to manipulation by political advertisement. If voters really are that unsophisticated — and indeed they may be — it is hard to understand what is more democratic about equal campaign spending. Equal campaign spending just means both sides have an equal chance to manipulate unsophisticated voters into their camp. Votes that result from such manipulation would still not track any sort of political will, and therefore be just as damaging to a purist notion of what democracy is about.