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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan

Posted: September 1, 2010 05:24 PM

The Tactical Fallacy

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More and more pundits are jumping on the Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging bandwagon (for recent examples, see here, here, here, and here). What we're observing is a classic example of what you might call the tactical fallacy. Here's how it works:

1. Pundits and reporters closely observe the behavior of candidates and parties, focusing on the tactics they use rather than larger structural factors.

2. The candidates whose tactics appear to be successful tend to win; conversely, those whose tactics appear to be unsuccessful tend to lose (and likewise with parties).

3. The media concludes that candidates won or lost because of their tactical choices.

The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in '02 to Bush '06, or Obama in '08 to Obama in '09-'10). But that doesn't mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president's party, whether it's a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.

What advocates of the tactical view have failed to do is provide a viable counterfactual -- where is the example of the president whose messaging succeeded despite a similarly poor economy? TNR's John Judis has tried to argue that Reagan was more successful than Obama in 1981-1982 (here and here), but as I have pointed out (here and here), the 1982 election results do not suggest Republicans significantly overperformed and Reagan's approval ratings (both on the economy and overall) were extremely similar to Obama's at the same point in their presidencies.

The reality is that Obama's current standing -- and the rush to blame it on tactical failures -- could be predicted months ago based on structural factors. His approval ratings largely reflect a poor economy. Similarly, Democrats were likely to suffer significant losses in the House no matter what due to the number of seats they currently hold and the fact that it is a midterm election. Nonetheless, expect the tactics-are-everything crowd to be saying "I told you so" on November 3.*

* Bonus prediction: If the economy rebounds before 2012, the media will rediscover the tactical genius of Obama and David Axelrod.

[Cross-posted to and]


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