Thursday, March 22, 2012

Ferhnstrom's Slip Up

Now, more than ever, staffers have to keep their mouths’ shut unless what they say is entirely consistent with the beliefs of the politician they represent and gentle enough to avoid mass media catastrophes.

Long time staffer and political advisor for Mitt Romney, Eric Fehrnstrom, failed to do so the other day when asked about Romney’s campaign strategy moving forward to the general election, assuming he gets the Republican nomination.

Unintentionally, he fed the American people and Romney’s political opponents a frighteningly childish analogy to remember as the primary season progresses. He said, “Everything changes…It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch…You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”

Even more frightening than the instantaneous media eruption, marked by Twitter frenzy, Democratic National Convention remarks, and Republican opponent mockery, was what Fehrnstrom implied by his “Etch a Sketch” comment.

He was referring to the shift politicians make from a primary election to the general election when they focus less on grabbing the more extreme portion of their party’s base and begin to “race to the middle.”  The median voter theorem states that winning Presidential candidates can transition from the edges of the ideological spectrum to the middle of the scale better than their opponents, and no more than in this election, has the need to readjust a campaign become more apparent.

Fehrnstrom’s comment was interpreted as Romney reinventing himself in the general election, shaking up the picture he drew in the primary and starting fresh in the general election in order to capture a broader base of the American people than President Obama.

What’s the problem with this? I think there’s a big problem here related to political accountability and fair representation.

An accepted theory in political science states that:
1)   in a campaign, candidate make promises about what they will do in office, 2) winning candidates keep their promises or face the electoral consequences, and 3) voters reward of punish who keep or break their promises.

So what are we to do when politicians seeking the President’s office are launching what Fehrnstrom makes out to be two entirely different set of promises?  I’d love to see some comments on what you all think about this conundrum, because the only answer I foresee is greater polarization leading to more different campaigns in the primary and in the general leading to greater overall disenfranchisement.  


  1. So what is the problem here? Is it that Ferhnstrom "slipped up" and said something that doesn't align with what Romney is saying? Or is it the broader issue that politicians often fail to fulfill campaign promises, and even might be willing to make promises they KNOW they won't be able to keep simply to gain votes? If it's the latter, I'm not sure what Ferhnstrom did was wrong. Sure, Romney probably didn't like what he said, but at least from a voter's perspective he's being honest. If anything, what's wrong with this is that he seems to be OK with the fact politicians seem to change once they move from the primary to the general election.

    Also, I was wondering if there's a name for the political science theory you put forth where it is assumed that the promises candidates make in campaigns will be kept, and if not, that voters will punish politicians who fail to live up to their promises. I can't imagine this is widely accepted anymore. I think that, if we can glean anything from Ferhnstrom's comments, it's that there seems to be some sort of tacit understanding now (unfortunately) that this kind of behavior happens and is the norm. In other words, it's almost like we're supposed to accept the fact that we shouldn't and can't rely on anything politicians say during campaign season.

    I totally agree with you, though, that this is a huge problem. Perhaps Americans don't pay enough attention (or simply don't have the time) to call politicians on their bluffs.

    I think it's also worth noting that this kind of thing was prevalent in the last presidential election as well. President Obama criticized President Bush on a number of national security policies and vowed to change them, only to continue them upon gaining office (e.g. extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, military commissions, etc.). I'm not necessarily saying President Obama was wrong to continue these policies, but as voters, I feel like we're at least owed an explanation for why he chose to reverse course.

  2. This slip-up of Fehrnstrom was really interesting--because it was completely indicative of what is going to happen after the Republican nomination. No matter who the candidate is or what party they are a part of, their message has to change from the primary to the general election. The candidates must transition from trying to win over a large portion of their party to trying to appeal to moderate voters, which is hardly an easy task.

    I don't think that this transition illustrates an inherent flaw in Romney, or in any of our candidates, but rather, a major flaw in our political primary system. The system forces candidates who may be relatively moderate to adapt stances that will appease the base of their party, because if they don't win primary votes, they won't have a shot to compete in the general election. The primary system proves to be an almost insurmountable challenge to true moderate candidates, with no clear solution in sight. The most obvious solution to this would be a third party or to run as an independent candidate, but as history shows, these are not good alternatives for candidates for office who actually want to win.

    Transitioning back to this particular slip-up, another interesting point is how Ferhnstrom basically said verbatim what Romney's detractors have said all along: that he has no real convictions on issues, and he just plays on what is popular with voters. It's hard for me to even begin to understand why Fehrnstrom would even mistakenly say something like this, because it's obviously an issue that he has had to constantly deal with.

  3. I think running for President of the United States has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world. To win office, a candidate needs a broad base of support from a range of donors, voters, and issue-advocacy groups. Without this support, no candidate has an plausible chance of success. And yet to win the support of these different coalitions and voters, the candidate has to make many, many promises. Once in office, it is impossible to satisfy all the expectations and promises made by the then-candidate. Governing is much more complicated, and unforeseen challenges are always cropping up to cloud the agenda. American voters have every right to vote out a president that doesn't meet their expectations--I just don't think very many presidents will ever meet those expectations.

  4. Couple of thoughts:

    1. One key axiom that I am constantly reminded of: "Politics ain't about coming in second." So it should come as no surprise that politicians play to win. This is no more true now than it was decades ago as far as I am concerned.

    2. I do wonder if it is less possible to be so etch-a-sketchy now as is was even twenty years ago. With everything a person says now captured on video and projected to millions on You-Tube, it is harder to back way from your own words. On the other hand, with the massive amounts of money availabel to candidates, they now have more resources to create the image they believe will be attractive to 51% of the electorate - regardless of the facts.

    3. These gaffes are only damaging if they ring true. John Edwards' $400 haircut was a trifle, in reality, but it resonated because it fit the preexisting stereotype of the candidate as being self-absorbed. Etch-a-Sketch is the same - it resonated and reinforce the prexisting public perception of Romney, which is why it will last and have lasting damage.

  5. I definitely agree that digital innovations such as YouTube have made it increasingly easier to corner a candidate for his or her "flip-flops" than it had been in the past, which is actually something that Fiorina brings up when discussing polarization in primaries. But I don't think that the Romney campaign necessarily deserves to receive so much negative backlash against Ferhnstrom's "slip-up"—I actually kind of appreciate the fact that Ferhnstrom was being honest. The issue of candidates changing face isn't limited to the Republican party; YouTube videos also prove that Obama's thoughts of the "individual mandate" have changed in the past few years, as have Newt Gingrich's. In fact I think it's kind of dangerous if we force politicians to never change their positions simply to avoid being called out for flipping views. What would be the result of that? Politicians whose views don't align with changing values and changing needs of the country or of the electorate?

    All in all, I think that Ferhnstrom's comment was mostly a product of the flawed primary model, which fosters polarization and makes it incredibly hard for candidates to campaign. Though it's reasonable that campaigning for office is challenging—we certainly wouldn't want to make it too easy—I think that other primary models do a much better job at producing "centrist" candidates whose views don't have to change as much from primary to general election. One model would be the Top-Two-Vote-Getter model, which my group focused on for our project. It certainly wouldn't single-handedly solve gridlock, but I think it could eliminate the need for politicians "restarting" their campaigns come the start of the general election, as well as it might get rid of the notion that a politician molding or shifting his or views is necessarily bad.