Lately many commentators have whipped themselves into a foam claiming that Obama can “define” Mitt Romney in a way that would prevent a GOP win in November. They claim we’re at a critical time for image branding, when voters’ minds are still open and uncluttered before the convention. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan does not agree.
Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Nyhan argues that journalists are overblowing the risk that Romney will be pigeonholed early. Contrary to the notion that Americans’ minds are a blank slate for whatever image the Obama camp wants to paint of Romney, Nyhan cites research that suggests otherwise: “The latest Gallup poll finds that 91% of Americans already have an opinion of [Romney].” They’ve also found that “Romney’s favorable numbers are predictably improving as Republicans and GOP-leaning independents return to the fold.”
To further dampen the hype of journalists pushing the “image war,” Nyhan consulted with fellow political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson. They found that pre-convention “news about the campaign affects voters but is eventually forgotten and thus has little impact on the final outcome.” It seems that candidates’ images are more often a reflection of their past performance than a cause of it.
Nyhan’s says that it's easy to select candidates who lost after the act and then claim that their image ratings were the problem. Some have pointed to Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole and John Kerry as prime examples. Yet Nyhan counters with a great point: these three candidates lost in economic circumstances “that would lead us to expect the incumbent party to hold the White House. The state of the economy—and the extent to which Obama is blamed for it—is still most likely to determine Romney’s fate.” In short, it seems relatively certain that “it matters far more how Obama is defined than Romney, whose image is likely to matter only on the margin.”
Nyhan’s piece is a smart take on this new stage of the election.