Friday, 20 August 2004

Assume the position of the Times

Alex Knapp ponders the assumptions underlying Dahlia Lithwick’s op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times calling on Democrats to act like George W. Bush is an adult—not so much because Bush isn’t an imbecile, but because such talk alienates swing voters. Alex writes:

Of course, swing voters (like myself) probably don’t take kindly to discussions about how best to manipulate them (I know I don’t).

With that in mind, there seem to be two unspoken assumptions in this article.

  1. That most Kerry supporters really do see Bush as an idiotic, bumbling child.
  2. That swing voters don’t read New York Times op-eds—Kerry supporters do.

Alex doesn’t think either of these assumptions are necessarily true. Certainly statement 1 need not be true; notably, even a small minority of Kerry supporters could damage his cause. For example, one suspects most Kerry supporters aren’t sending their hard-earned cash to prop up 527s like ACT and, instead free-riding on George Soros’ pocketbook.

But I think statement 2 is true; swing voters, by and large, don’t read the Times. Most politically-aware people (essentially, the Times’ audience) are partisans of varying degrees of strength; politically sophisticated fence-sitters like Alex Knapp and Dan Drezner are relative exceptions.* To the extent the Times influences mass opinion, it does so as an elite signaling mechanism for writers at the newspapers and wire services that swing voters do read. If the Times chooses to bury the Swift Vets as partisan hacks instead of leading with the fact the group has already caught Kerry in a lie about his presence in Cambodia, it gives the “all-clear” signal for the Commercial Appeal or Clarion-Ledger to do the same. Thus, if Lithwick (and, by extension, the Times) can influence some Kerry supporters to alter their rhetoric, their “team” will probably come out ahead, even if a few fence-sitters have their noses tweaked in the process.

* They are exceptions relative to the size of the electorate, but still probably number a few million in the total population.