In this election season, amid all the chatter about candidates’ foibles and gaffes on the campaign trail, a question persists: how much does this criticism permeate through the minds of American voters and shape their vote choices?
The first hurdle in gathering evidence that campaign events matter in voter behavior and election outcomes is to measure how many people are even aware that a campaign event, one that is treated as noteworthy by the campaigns, the media, and advocacy groups, took place. Since the second week in February of this year, several Stanford University and Hoover Institution colleagues, Morris P. Fiorina, David Brady, Doug Rivers, and I have been surveying a national sample of individuals each week in an effort to measure public awareness of events in the campaigns.
Over the past eight months, we have gathered survey data on individuals’ awareness of more than four dozen campaign events. As we continue to collect and analyze the survey responses, the data show substantial variation in awareness across types of campaign events, timing in the campaign cycle, and respondents with different personal characteristics. But it was a recent campaign event that caught our attention and stood out as an excellent example of how difficult it can be for a political campaign to get out its message about a campaign event to voters.
The Romney Campaign’s Statements on Abortion Policy
Earlier this month, President Obama’s reelection campaign used a conference call with the media and a series of public comments by campaign surrogates to criticize Mitt Romney for a pair of statements about Romney’s position on abortion policy.
The first statement came during a meeting with the candidate and editorial board of The Des Moines Register , in which Romney said, “there’s no legislation with regards to abortion that I’m familiar with that would become part of my agenda.” Romney did go on to say that he would use an executive order [not legislation requiring congressional approval] to reinstate what is called the Mexico City policy, which prohibits American foreign aid from funding abortions, and was waived by Obama as one of his first acts in office.
In what the Governor’s supporters have described as a “clarification” and detractors have characterized as a “reversal,” Andrea Saul, the Romney campaign spokeswoman, later said, “Romney would of course support legislation aimed at providing greater protections for life,” and stated that “Mitt Romney is proudly pro-life, and he will be a pro-life president.”
The Survey: Who Knows What Happened?
The weekend after the Romney statements and Obama campaign rejoinders, we asked a question about awareness of the statements on the weekly The Economist/YouGov poll, fielded October 13-15th.
We asked survey respondents:
This week, in a conversation with the editors of an Iowa newspaper, Mitt Romney made a statement about his policy positions that the Romney campaign later explained was not an accurate statement of his position. The issue being discussed was:
(1) Abortion policy
(2) Agricultural subsidies
(3) Medicare financing
(4) Did not hear about the statements
The survey sample is 1000 respondents with margin of error +/- 3%.
This event had among the lowest awareness levels of any event since we began surveying in February. Among all respondents, about one-quarter, 24%, were able to correctly identify abortion policy as the issue being discussed.
9% of respondents choose Medicare financing, 2% selected agriculture subsidies, and 66% responded that they had not heard about the statements.
Even on this “women’s issue,” men were twice as likely as women to correctly identify the issue at hand. 33% of male respondents, but only 16% of female respondents, selected abortion policy.
Two things to keep in mind when interpreting these data: one is a general pattern in awareness across the weeks that we have asked questions; the other is a point about how the Obama campaign was spinning this campaign event.
First, the general pattern. Across the more than four dozen questions we have asked about campaign events since February, there has been a consistent gender gap in the responses - and consistently in the direction of men answering correctly at higher rates than women. This gap exists even when an event involved abortion policy or birth control, although the gender gap tends to be smaller on events involving these issues. (We’ll see our survey data on “Binders Full of Women” today.)
Second, the Obama campaign’s spin of this event focused on the message that these statements are evidence that Mitt Romney is hiding his true beliefs. (Note that the Obama campaign sees this as a distinct message from Romney being a “flip-flopper.”) The Obama campaign wanted to use these statements to argue that Mitt Romney is a closet conservative whose more moderate public statements are not consistent with his genuine positions. Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter told reporters on the campaign call about the event that, “Romney is trying to hide what he really believes....His severely conservative positions that got him through the GOP primary are still there. Now he’s trying to cover them up.” The campaign’s decision to not push hard on the “women’s issue” messaging might have hindered the campaign’s attempts to grab the attention of women, and maybe their attempts to garner media attention.
My colleagues and I are sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that some campaign events get less attention and see less public awareness than others. The research questions before us center on which events become low awareness and which high awareness, and how those patterns are formed. The nature of the events themselves, the political environment, characteristics of the American people, and the strategy and tactics of campaigns all, undoubtedly, play a role in setting the level of awareness, but campaigns and elections scholars understand little beyond that. Our project is designed to provide some answers to these questions.
Our data on this single campaign event about Romney’s recent statements on abortion policy is not meant to be taken as evidence that campaign events don’t matter to election outcomes. Instead, it is a reminder of the challenges that campaigns face in breaking through the sea of information - and Americans’ normal, often busy, lives - to try to make the election about matters other than the state of the economy and major international affairs.