The Campaign Spot

The Dog Days of the Presidential Campaign Begin

I doubt there are many Republicans or conservatives who are genuinely outraged or bothered by young Barack Obama eating dog meat during his years in Indonesia.

But the tale of Mitt Romney putting the carrier of his family dog, Seamus, on the roof of his car has become liberals’ favorite knocks on the all-but-certain GOP nominee. The Washington Post recently summarized:

It happened more than a quarter century ago, at the start of a Romney family summer vacation. But the tale of Seamus, the Irish setter who got sick while riding 12 hours on the roof of Mitt Romney’s faux-wood-paneled station wagon, is ballooning into a narrative of epic proportions.

It has come to characterize the candidate — and not in the favorable way Tagg Romney hoped for when he first talked in 2007 about his family’s annual road trips.

Late-night host David Letterman has been giving the dog near-nightly shout-outs. There are parody Web videos, “Dogs Aren’t Luggage” T-shirts and Facebook groups. (“Dogs Against Romney,” which protested outside last month’s Westminster dog show, has more than 38,000 Facebook fans.) The New Yorker featured a cartoon, with Rick Santorum riding in Romney’s rooftop dog carrier, on its cover last week. In the five years since the story was revealed, New York Times columnist Gail Collins has mentioned Seamus in at least 50 columns.

One cannot help but suspect that liberals repeat the tale, hoping to villainize Romney in the eyes of dog owners and low-information voters. This morning the Huffington Post features a story entitled “Why Seamus Matters” that ominously declares:

Romney’s treatment of Seamus is potentially damaging to his candidacy because it reinforces much of what many Americans, particularly swing voters, already feel about Romney-that he is a smart enough man, but simply unable to connect or relate to the problems and challenges facing ordinary Americans.

Okay, fine. If this election is going to be about what each candidate has done to a dog, let’s let it be about what each candidate has done to a dog.

What I suspect is that this partially reflects the political professional class looking at the low-information voter and wondering what, if anything, will stick. Surely, even those who know almost nothing about politics and don’t care will at least pay attention to a story about a dog, right?

Doug Schoen, writing in Newsweek about a survey he conducted on Americans’ civic knowledge:

But government and history? Basic knowledge of the Constitution, the three branches, the wars we’ve fought? Fewer than one third of those questions were answered correctly.

In the same way, a schism emerged about who knew what. Republicans did better than Democrats, with two thirds of Republicans passing vs. only 53 percent of Democrats. But liberals (64 percent) did better than conservatives (62 percent).

Parsing those numbers further, what we see is engagement at each party’s base. A solid 70 percent of conservative Republicans passed, followed by 61 percent of GOP moderates and 55 percent of GOP liberals. For Democrats, it was the opposite: liberals and moderates proved better informed, with 62 percent of both groups passing, but just 36 percent of conservative Democrats did so. In other words, conservative Democrats pulled down the numbers for both their ideology and their party, while the centers of both parties were the least engaged.

This illustrates something quite dangerous. The operative theory about America’s political situation holds that the fringe of each party is poorly informed, and the middle possesses the wisdom, but our numbers show it’s actually the extremes that are engaged — and thus, up on their facts — while the middle is relatively ill informed.

The respective base of each side is locked up. What remains is those folks in the middle who claim to care but who can’t be bothered to read about politics and policy. So what ends up influencing the decisions of these low-information voters? All kinds of factors, including appearances . . .

The looks of political candidates are a key factor influencing voters, a phenomenon identified by a number of scholars in recent years. Now, a new study by MIT political scientists adds to this body of research by detailing which types of citizens are most influenced by candidate appearances, and why: The tendency is most prevalent among low-information voters who watch a lot of television.

Using data from the 2006 U.S. Senate and governors’ races, the study shows that for every 10-point increase in the advantage a candidate has when rated by  on his or her looks, there will be a nearly 5 percent increase in the vote for that candidate by the uninformed voters who are most firmly planted on their couches. Yet that same advantage in loo ks is worth only about a 1 percent increase among low-information voters who watch little television.

The dueling dog stories represent each campaign making Hail Mary passes to reach these low-information voters.

UPDATE: A reader argues that the Romney campaign isn’t really pushing the Obama-ate-dog story. No, but Jim Treacher’s post went up at 5:03 p.m. Eastern. Within a few hours, Twitter was full of jokes about “Obama dog recipes.”

At 10:11 p.m. Eastern, Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom — you know, the guy everyone derided as a fool after the Etch-a-Sketch comment — tweaked Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod by pointing to a photo Axelrod had distributed with the comment, “How loving owners transport their dogs” by responding, “In hindsight, a chilling photo.”

Subtle. Nothing too gruesome. Just perfectly wicked in its allusion, enough to get people asking, “Wait, what? Why is that photo chilling?”

Of course, with that jab, Obama-campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt had to respond, and Tweeted, “What’s the next attack @EricFerhn and the RNC will surface on a 6-10 year old?”

And with representatives of the two campaigns publicly sparring over this, it became legitimate enough for a major newsman like ABC News chief White House correspondent Jake Tapper to offer a quick summary — headlined “Obama as a Boy Ate Dog Meat” — and concluding that the top-of-the-car ride was “certainly kinder than eating him.”

I would note that in 2008, John McCain’s presidential campaign wouldn’t have touched this anecdote with a ten-foot pole. Between this and the Romney camp’s rapid response to the Rosen comments, we are seeing a Republican presidential campaign that is exponentially faster on its feet and way more nimble than the previous general-election campaign against Obama.

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