06/06/2012 05:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Relative Salience Of The Etch A Sketch Quip

As you may have heard, way back in March, as Mitt Romney was widening his delegate lead and locking down the GOP nomination, his adviser Eric Fehrnstrom uttered what was widely reported to be a "gaffe."

In a conversation with John Fugelsang, Fehrnstrom responded to a query about the challenges of tacking to the center in the general election by saying that after the primary had concluded, Romney would have the luxury of resetting his campaign. Speaking off the cuff, Fehrnstrom referenced an Etch A Sketch to make this more relatable. But because Romney has a well-established reputation for fungible convictions, the political world seized on the metaphor and used it as a brickbat.

As you might expect, the phrase Etch A Sketch immediately became popular with Romney's Democratic opponents. In mid-April, President Barack Obama's campaign manager knocked Romney's high negatives by quipping, "He is going to have to do his Etch a Sketch very quickly here."

Last week as David Axelrod was facing Romney hecklers at a campaign rally in Massachusetts, he invoked the toy again, shouting back, "You can chant down speakers, my friend, but it's hard to Etch A Sketch the truth away."

On Wednesday, the Obama campaign responded to Romney's creation of a Hispanic steering committee with another repetition: "Unfortunately for Governor Romney, an advisory council can’t Etch A Sketch away his extreme positions on the issues that matter to Hispanic families."

The Atlantic's Molly Ball jumped on that with an ace observation:


Actually, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the Obama campaign is trying to make Etch A Sketch happen in vain. Let's recall that after Fehrnstrom's statement touched off all that hullabaloo, the Pew Research Center reported that this "gaffe" that had been so, so important to the people who write and talk about politics was not something that normal people actually noticed:

Though the 2012 presidential campaign was the second most closely followed story last week, 55% of the public says they had not heard about one of the week’s more prominent election stories: a gaffe by a top strategist for Mitt Romney who said that the candidate would recalibrate his campaign once he wins the GOP nomination, shaking the slate clean like an Etch A Sketch toy.

Just more than four-in-ten (44%) say they heard about the remark, which critics used to hit Romney for shifting his positions on certain issues.

Critically, only 47 percent of independent voters -- the sort of people who you would imagine might not like Romney's weather-vane tendencies -- had heard about Etch A Sketch. Where is Etch A Sketch getting the most traffic right now? Intense supporters of Obama definitely trade the quip back and forth, but they don't need to be convinced of Romney's foibles. You'll also see it used on a regular basis on on Obama-allied blogs and by left-leaning activists. But within that audience, "Etch A Sketch" is insider jargon, a shibboleth, a short cut.

Out in the wide world, where low-information voters and independent fence-sitters live, it likely does sound, as Ball put it, like "gobbledygook." Team Obama Re-Elect probably needs to pick a better weapon.

Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?