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Big and Little Nothings

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Reviewing this cycle's mostly minor but occasionally major mistakes so far

Yes, we know reporters have to react to news and find ways to make it relevant, but pardon us if we didn’t gag a little bit seeing headlines about the potential impact of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy on her mother’s potential presidential campaign. Some said the baby was timed for the campaign — because everyone knows a grandkid on the knee is a guaranteed vote-getter. (That’s why Mitt Romney won in a 2012 landslide.) Others suggested the opposite: Hillary Clinton was all ready to run until this news broke: Now she and Bill will want to babysit instead of barnstorming in Iowa (puh-leeze).

The minor media blip got us thinking about some campaign news from 2014: negative stories or gaffes that have at times popped up about this candidate or the other. Do these developments matter?

In most cases, no.

Clearly, some things that happen during campaigns change the game. Impolitic remarks on social issues by Todd Akin (R-MO) and Richard Mourdock (R-IN) probably cost them Senate seats in 2012. It’s harder to prove, but ethics problems might have fatally harmed Shelley Berkley (D-NV) in her narrow loss the same year. In all three cases, a more generic and less flawed candidate would probably have won.

Actual developments and/or mistakes will take their toll on candidates this cycle. Some already have, while others definitely didn’t. We separated these incidents into three categories: Ones that don’t matter, ones that might matter, and ones that do matter.

After checking out our list, e-mail us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu to let us know which ones we might have missed. If we get some good responses, we’ll run an update next week.

Three that didn’t matter

1. Alison Lundergan Grimes’ campaign rollout : Remember back in the summer of 2013, when Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) messed up her campaign rollout and, perish the thought, didn’t even immediately have a campaign website? No? That’s OK, because no one else remembers either. In fact, it seems like nothing that has happened throughout the first nine months of the expected clash between Grimes and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) has actually moved the needle. Just check out HuffPost Pollster’s tracking of the relatively tiny movement in the race:

Ultimately, we think McConnell has a significantly clearer path to a plurality than Grimes in this conservative state despite his unpopularity. Many Democrats differ. We’ll see — but any event that has or will have an actual impact on the race’s trajectory, outside of Grimes’ long-ago decision to actually run, probably hasn’t happened yet.

2. McConnell’s minor missteps : Speaking of McConnell, his campaign operation has had its share of minor headaches. His campaign manager was caught on tape complaining about the job. “McConnelling” became a new meme thanks to some stock footage the campaign put on the Internet for use by third-party groups. And the minority leader evoked memories of Michael Dukakis by awkwardly clutching a rifle at the Conservative Political Action Conference, among other things. But none of these stories have apparently meant much in McConnell’s primary race against Tea Partier Matt Bevin, who appears to have little chance to upset the five-term incumbent. Bevin’s own troubles, particularly his seeming support for the 2008 bank bailout that McConnell’s forces gleefully spread far and wide, seem more significant. So is the fact that it’s just really hard to beat an incumbent senator in a primary.

3. FitzGerald botches running mate : There’s not much evidence that a presidential running mate impacts the election to any major degree, so it stands to reason that a lieutenant gubernatorial nominee is even less important to voters. Presumptive Ohio Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ed FitzGerald (D) had to dump his initial running mate, state Sen. Eric Kearney (D), in December after Kearney’s tax problems became apparent. FitzGerald picked Sharen Neuhardt, a former congressional candidate and abortion rights advocate, to replace Kearney.

If you believe Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling, FitzGerald is tied with incumbent Gov. John Kasich (R) and has been for months. If you believe nonpartisan Quinnipiac, as well as Ohio’s voting history and the opinions of many people who know the state well, Kasich is leading. That was true six months ago — before the running mate switcheroo — and it’s true today.

Three that may or may not matter

1. “Entitlement” and Mark Pryor : The embattled Arkansas Democratic senator made a seemingly notable gaffe in early March when he said this of his opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (R, AR-4):

“I think that is part of this sense of entitlement that he gives off. It’s almost like, ‘I served my country, let me into the Senate.’ That’s not how it works in Arkansas.”

Since the comment, though, the news for Pryor has been almost uniformly good. Five straight polls released this month — two independent surveys, two affiliated with Democrats or liberal causes and one Republican poll — showed Pryor either leading or tied with Cotton, and there’s been a notable uptick in opinion about his fortunes. The Republican poll, conducted by Harper Polling for Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, shows a clear trend: That poll had Pryor down six in late January but tied earlier this month. It seems fair to say that the gaffe didn’t hurt his numbers. But Cotton has a decent new ad out referring to the Pryor comment and his own military service, so perhaps it will remain in the bloodstream.

2. Bruce Braley’s trouble on the farm : Rep. Bruce Braley (D, IA-1) stepped in it when he insulted Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and farmers in general in a speech to lawyers. But how, exactly, did that change the race? Braley’s fate remains heavily tied to the Republican nomination process, which will go to an activist-dominated convention if no one gets over 35% in a June 3 primary, and to the overall political environment, which could hurt him in a swingy state that only quite narrowly leans Democratic. We knew all that after Sen. Tom Harkin (D) retired and no big names stepped up on the Republican side. Suffolk University polled the race in early April after the story broke and found results very similar to previous surveys from other pollsters: Braley was in the high 30s, and his likeliest and strongest potential opponents — businessman Mark Jacobs (R) and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) — were around 30%.

If Braley had said this in late September as opposed to late March, when he could be facing a single, flush-with-cash opponent and a more tuned-in electorate, it would likely be a bigger problem. That said, a top Iowa observer insists to us that it’s important, and a political scientist who typically thinks such mistakes are overrated thought at the time that Braley had possibly done himself in. We don’t doubt that Republicans will tie this bell around the Braley cow all the way to November, and he’s not going to like it. The jury’s out on this one, but Braley was never as secure as some thought before the gaffe or as endangered as some thought after it.

3. David Perdue goes back to school : The Georgia Republican Senate candidate bashed fellow candidate Karen Handel by indirectly mentioning that she doesn’t have a college degree. (He belatedly apologized.) It’s possible that Handel, who hasn’t raised much money and who, it’s probably fair to say, has been a disappointment to national Republicans, will benefit from the much-needed free media the kerfuffle gave her. If Handel makes the likely primary runoff, and either Perdue is her opponent or he misses the runoff altogether (he’s leading in polls at the moment), then maybe this was a big moment. Otherwise, probably not.

Three that do matter

1. Milton Wolf’s X-ray commentary : Two candidates competing for the Republican Senate nomination in Kansas, which has been tantamount to election since 1938, have both suffered through a major controversy. Incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts (R) played right into Wolf’s hands when he admitted that he didn’t have a home in Kansas. This set off alarm bells with observers because residency issues likely played a big role in Sen. Richard Lugar’s (R-IN) primary loss in 2012. But then Wolf’s problems overshadowed Roberts: The insurgent, a physician, had posted morbid photos of X-rays on Facebook and made snarky remarks about them. Ultimately, the latter matters more: Wolf’s only chance to win was to run a flawless race against Roberts, and the X-ray disaster zaps any problems Roberts might have.

2. The kissing congressman : Rep. Vance McAllister (R, LA-5), who was taped kissing an aide after his recent special election to the House, is probably on his way out one way or the other. He has raised almost no money recently, and state and national GOP leaders want him to resign. If McAllister runs for reelection, he would be an underdog in Louisiana’s all-party primary in November, and even if he made it to a December runoff, it’s hard to see how he wins.

3. Doug Gansler’s string of mistakes : To be clear, Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler (D) was always an underdog against Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown (D) in the Democratic primary to replace outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). But Gansler didn’t do himself any favors with continual mistakes, like appearing at a reportedly boozy teenage house party and, just recently, taking a shot at Brown’s military service that’s not all that dissimilar to what Pryor said about Cotton in Arkansas. The difference is that Gansler was and is very much behind (unlike Pryor) and it’s just the latest of many problems. Like Wolf in Kansas, Gansler needed to run a near-perfect race to win the nomination against Brown, whom O’Malley supports and who has consistently led polls. He has failed to do so.

Conclusion

The overall point is that while some of these gaffes and errors may matter, most won’t. Really, the campaign mistakes we’ve identified as mattering the most are mainly the ones in primaries. Wolf and Gansler are running underdog nomination bids, and McAllister is running in a heavily Republican district. If pushed, residents in LA-5 might pick McAllister over a Democrat, just like voters did when they sent damaged Rep. Mark Sanford (R, SC-1) to Congress in a special election last year. In 2012, Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R, TN-4) defeated a Democrat even after news broke that the doctor had pressured his one-time mistress to get an abortion. DesJarlais is an underdog in his primary this time.

As we saw most notably in the 2012 Republican presidential contest, primary voters shift more easily because they are picking among members of their own party with whom, presumably, they agree on most of the issues. General election electorates are more consistent, as the remarkably stable state-level polling in the 2012 Obama-Romney contest demonstrated.

Political observers always debate whether voters are, pardon our bluntness, stupid. If they were, they would be more likely to let many of the developments described above affect their voting. While cynics, particularly conservative ones, argue that the parties govern in similar, budget-busting ways, Democratic and Republican candidates are mostly and diametrically opposed on all sorts of issues. A voter who changed her mind because the candidate she otherwise supported made an occasional boneheaded comment or whose announcement press conference didn’t go all that well would be, in many cases, basing a vital, stark choice on fairly trivial matters.

We know that voters actually don’t gravitate between the parties all that much: As UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck recently and smartly noted, voters generally don’t switch from one party to the other in different elections. Sure, that’s proof that American voters are partisan, but it’s also evidence that they aren’t as affected by gaffes and “game changers” as campaigns and the press think.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik

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