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5 Myths About The Presidential Race

The flaps and "fun things" that happen during a political campaign might be gifts for the media, but do they really matter?
The flaps and "fun things" that happen during a political campaign might be gifts for the media, but do they really matter?

There's always a lot of noise around a presidential campaign — minor flaps that suck up a lot of media attention but are forgotten by Election Day.

John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and a founder of the blog The Monkey Cage, says there's no need to worry about a lot of the ephemera that news coverage tends to focus on.

"I'm telling you, all the fun things don't matter," Sides says.

At a talk Tuesday at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis, Sides outlined what he calls "five myths" about the 2012 presidential campaign.

Myth No. 1: Obama Should Be Losing

Sides is one of those political scientists who has come up with a formula for predicting the outcome of a presidential race. He looks at three factors: GDP growth in the first two quarters of the election year; the president's approval rating in June; and whether the incumbent is seeking re-election.

Plugging in President Obama's numbers — 1.3 percent GDP growth and a June approval rating of 47 percent — Sides says the incumbent will win 77.2 percent of the time.

"The historical record shows that you don't have to be presiding over the most robust economy or be the most popular incumbent in history in order to win," Sides says.

Myth No. 2: The GOP Primaries Pushed Romney Too Far To The Right

Although Mitt Romney struck many conservative positions as part of his quest for the Republican nomination, the public doesn't perceive him as having moved too far to the right, Sides contends.

Sides has been performing weekly surveys of voters since January that show most see Romney as being closer to them ideologically than Obama.

"This suggests Romney has an advantage he has not yet exploited," Sides says.

Myth No. 3: Gaffes Matter

Certain statements get a lot of attention from the media, but they don't necessarily alter the dynamics of the race. Sides says moments such as Obama saying "You didn't build that," which was taken as a knock against entrepreneurs, or Romney saying "47 percent" of the people were sticking with Obama because they are "dependent upon government," ultimately didn't move polls much — "a percentage point or two, at most."

"No one is saying [the 47 percent comment] is good," Sides says, "but it's far too early to say it's devastating."

Because he was speaking in Missouri, Sides was willing to make an exception in the case of Todd Akin, the Republican Senate nominee who suggested that in cases of "legitimate rape" women's bodies have ways of preventing pregnancy.

"Gaffes can be important where voters don't know much about [the candidate] and even more important when most people don't agree with them," Sides says.

Myth No. 4: Debates Can Be Game Changers

The idea that particular events can be political "game changers" is an inaccurate cliche, Sides suggests, particularly after the conventions. While they may move polls, their effects are generally temporary.

"To be a game changer, you have to have not only a bump in the polls, but win the race," Sides says.

He puts debates in this category. They are useful for learning more about the candidates, but if you're waiting for a moment that will turn the race "upside down," as New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie predicted would happen following Wednesday's debate, don't bother.

Debates seem important because they can provide moments that are remembered years later: Ronald Reagan's quips, Al Gore's audible sighs. However, they come late in the process, when there just aren't that many undecided voters left in play, Sides argues.

He cites The Timeline of Presidential Elections, a new book that compiles polling data from 15 different contests. It concludes that the best predictors of the eventual results come before the debates.

Myth No. 5: An Obama Victory Will Be A Mandate

The president himself has suggested that winning re-election will strengthen his hand in Washington. "I do think that should I be fortunate enough to have another four years, the American people will have made a decision," he told Time in August, "and hopefully, that will impact how Republicans think about these problems."

Not likely, Sides says. It's been rare for Obama to win any GOP votes for major initiatives such as the 2009 stimulus package, the federal health care law or the Dodd-Frank financial regulations. And those all occurred after what was likely a bigger Obama victory in 2008, when Democrats won big congressional majorities.

A smaller Obama win, coupled with continuing Republican control of the House and more Republicans in the Senate, isn't a scenario that will lead the GOP to say the president should call the shots, Sides says.

That isn't unusual. Most voters, he argues, don't base their picks on careful, reasoned assessments of all the candidates' positions on the issues. As a result, politicians continually make mistakes by misinterpreting their victories as major policy mandates.

"Clearly, Obama's mandate does not exist," Sides says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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