Political Animal


October 11, 2012 3:41 PM Did Voters Already Think Mitt’s a Moderate?

By Ed Kilgore

Well, just as I was getting settled into my theory that Mitt’s perceived “move to the center” was a pretty big strategic deal, along comes John Sides with at least one batch of data suggesting that Mitt’s been considered more “moderate” than Obama all along, and that the debate didn’t change ideological perceptions one bit.

There are some pretty obvious limitations to the data John cites. All the “ideological” perceptions are relative to those of respondents, which creates all kinds of tricky interpretive problems. In terms of the impact of the debate, positive perceptions of candidates are not necessarily translated immediately by voters into reasons for them, so the finding that ideological perceptions haven’t changed may be irrelevant. And so, too, may be the whole question of “changing perceptions.” Mitt is definitely singing a new tune rhetorically—without changing his actual policy positions—so it’s just as likely he’s reinforcing a valuable perception for relative moderation as that he’s creating it to begin with.

Romney’s overall positioning in the survey Sides cites does make you wonder if a bit more of the attention the Obama campaign paid to Romney’s personal shortcomings might have been better devoted to stronger ideological branding, which didn’t much begin in earnest until Romney chose Ryan as his running-mate. But what us political junkies call “ideology” is not always understood that way by regular voters. George W. Bush was not perceived as all that conservative ideologically. But non-conservative voters (and eventually a fair number of conservatives) sure didn’t like his policies, so tying Romney’s policies to Bush’s makes sense for Team Obama whether that makes him less of a “moderate” or not.

In any event, Romney’s self-presentation of his political philosophy and governing agenda during the debate sure was different from what he had presented during the primaries, when only conservatives were paying attention. In drawing much more attention to it now, Mitt’s opponents simply need to hammer in the point that Mitt will be a typical Republican, not someone who can transcend his (relatively unpopular) party, or act that differently from the last president from his (relatively unpopular) party. To conclude otherwise—that the debates really are all about “style points” and it doesn’t much matter what words come out of the candidates’ mouths—represents a level of cynicism I’m not quite ready to accept. Whatever you choose to call what viewers perceived about Mitt’s world-view and current intentions during the debate, it enabled him for a significant number of voters to move across the threshold of acceptability as an alternative to the president—to represent “safe change” from the status quo. The strategic imperative for Team Obama is to do whatever it takes to push him back across that threshold into the cold, while burnishing the president’s own personal and ideological attractiveness. Link him to Bush, link him to the GOP, link him to a point-of-view outside the mainstream, or simply undermine his credibility—these are all potentially effective tactics.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Gandalf on October 11, 2012 3:55 PM:

    If Mitt's a moderate then I'm the King of Siam. Let's call him what he really is. A lying sack of shit. Somebody please find one thing that he solidly stands for that he's let us know about.

  • c u n d gulag on October 11, 2012 4:02 PM:

    This is why we can't afford to call him 'Moderate Mitt,'
    in the hopes that this will stifle his base.

    Keep calling him, "Severely Conservative Mitt" - because that's what he will be.

    Nobody from the right is calling him out on his move to the center, because the individuals and organizations that normally would scream about something like that, have been told, "The fix is in! Keep your mouths shut - he was flopping and flailing running as a Conservative. Trust us, if he wins - he WILL be! HE'LL OWE US!!!"

  • lou on October 11, 2012 4:15 PM:

    What ever category you put Ryan, McConnell and Boehner in, add Mitt. The people will know him better by these, who will be his masters, than by comparing Mitt with any past iterations of Mitt. Unfortunately Mitt will do whatever he can to confuse the people enough that they will not connect these few most telling dots.

  • jjm on October 11, 2012 4:27 PM:

    I like Obama's new way of calling Mitt the liar that he is: "He was 'severely kidding'!"

  • LAC on October 11, 2012 4:30 PM:

    Oh, for Pete's sake, who are these people you are talking about? Most of the people I talk to think Myth is a liar, a flip flopper with no core. I just love all this second guessing over one fucking debate. Jesus Christ, if we are going to get endless days of articles acting as if a small bounce for this creep is armegeddon, do me a favor and link some YouTube videos of people hitting themselves, or falling crotch first on a bench or belly flopping into a kiddie pool. Because at least it will be worth reading.

  • fostert on October 11, 2012 4:33 PM:

    Mitt isn't a moderate, he's an empty suit. His only ideal is his desire for power. To achieve that, he will say anything.

  • T2 on October 11, 2012 4:39 PM:

    It seems the Media is on the way to convincing the American public that all politicians lie about pretty much everything. So they might as well get a white liar instead of a black liar. Boy, will they be surprised.

  • SecularAnimist on October 11, 2012 5:14 PM:

    Ed Kilgore wrote: "... Romney’s self-presentation of his political philosophy and governing agenda during the debate sure was different from what he had presented during the primaries ..."

    Not really. Both were exactly the same: 100 percent bullshit.

    Romney has one and only one "governing agenda" in mind: to drain the wealth of America into the offshore bank accounts of himself, his family, and his corrupt, kleptocratic corporate cronies and financial backers.

    If you want to hear Romney clearly and honestly state his "governing agenda", listen to the recording of his explanation to investors of the Bain paradigm: acquire companies, run them into bankruptcy, and "harvest" them for profit.

    That is Romney's "governing agenda" for America -- to suck the life-blood out of America, leaving a dessicated corpse, and then move on to the next victim.

    This is what folks like Ed Kilgore should be talking about -- not the empty blather over which line of bullshit, "conservative" or "moderate", Romney is spewing on any given day.

  • bdop4 on October 11, 2012 6:18 PM:

    We have hours of Romney soundbites during the primaries. All they have to do is start running those unedited.

    That said, it's pretty depressing that a number of people apparently weren't paying ANY attention to the campaign prior to that debate. Venezuela had an 80% turnout during their election. Has this country EVER come close to that mark? And yet somehow, we're the ones with the special insight concerning Democracy.

  • James E. Powell on October 11, 2012 8:08 PM:

    I have no doubt that the majority of Americans would agree with Mitt Romney being a moderate. They would also consider George W. Bush a moderate. They would say the same thing about Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman. They would say it for just about any Republican whose name they recognize.

    They would also agree the Barack Obama, Bill & Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden and just about any Democrat they've ever heard of is a liberal, probably a bit too far to the left.

    They agree with these things because that's what they have been told. There is a relentless rain of epithets showered on every Democrat. There is nothing similar for Republicans.

  • Renai on October 11, 2012 8:13 PM:

    LAC, This election is just too close. One debate did make a difference. The hard-hearted BUT STYLISH nominee is now closing the gab.

    I will still vote for the empty chair because I prefer substance over style, but I will do it surrounded by red state voters marching proudly over to vote for the empty suit.

  • TRochon62 on October 14, 2012 8:13 AM:

    The people who think Mitt is a moderate are the ones who think subsidized school lunch is communist, public schools are socialist and abortion to save the life of the mother is left-wing.