Romney, Obama, and the 2012 preference cascade


Gail Gitcho, communications director for the Romney campaign, issued a “week in review” memo today.  It was a very good week:

By any objective measure, President Obama and his campaign have stumbled into the general election. According to one report, the president’s recent troubles “have shaken the overwhelming confidence of his campaign in Chicago and of Democratic leaders in Washington.”

This week, we saw wave after wave of Democratic officials and Obama surrogates stand up against President Obama’s attack machine. From New York to California, and North Dakota to Alabama, the message was loud and clear. The Obama campaign’s best-laid plans to wage an all-out assault on the free enterprise system have predictably backfired.

These obsessive and misleading attacks – which the president himself confirmed will be the focus of his campaign – have been rebuked by fellow Democrats for being “nauseating” and “unfair” and ridiculed by the media and Democratic operatives as “clumsy” and “ancient.” The media felt compelled to eulogize “the 2004 version of Barack Obama,” who promised unity and a new era of leadership, while introducing the world to “the new, nasty Obama campaign.”

Meanwhile, the current chair of the DNC distanced herself from the Administration’s decision to grant a visa to the daughter of Cuba’s communist dictator, while a former DNC chair declined to endorse the Obama campaign in its current state.

Gitcho goes on to mention the Arkansas and Kentucky Democrat primaries, where a nobody and “Nobody,” respectively, pulled a good forty percent of the vote against the sitting President. 

It wasn’t just a bad week for Obama.  Romney has played his cards well, effectively presenting his economic message adding a significant narrative about educational reform.  As Napoleon is said to have advised, “Never interfere with an enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.”  Following that advice can require real skill and discipline, especially when the mainstream media is nearly frantic to change the subject.  We all enjoyed the “blockbuster scoop” about Romney’s alleged misadventures in high school from half a century ago, didn’t we?

What I believe we are seeing here is the beginning of a “preference cascade,” a term made popular by Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit fame.  It’s a fascinating concept, applied originally to the process by which oppressive governments fall. 

A large population can be dominated by a small group only by persuading all dissenters that they stand alone.  Most of their fellow citizens are portrayed as loyal to the regime, and everyone around the dissident is a potential informer.  A huge dissident population can therefore be suppressed, by making them believe they’re all lonely voices in the wilderness… until the day they begin realizing they are not alone, and most people don’t support the regime.  The process by which dissent becomes seen as commonplace, and eventually overwhelming, is the preference cascade.

This analysis doesn’t have to be confined to the study of repressive, dictatorial regimes, or even politics.  Consider the phenomenon of celebrity without merit – that is, people who are famous for being famous.  Their popularity tends to evaporate in a preference cascade eventually, as people in the audience begin wondering if anyone else is tired of hearing about the ersatz “celebrity,” and soon discover that everyone is.

A preference cascade can flow in positive directions as well.  Those who believe they are alone in holding a positive opinion about something are delighted to discover that its fan base is much larger than they believed, and approval quickly snowballs.  Anyone who has watched a “cult” phenomenon go “mainstream” has witnessed this.

That’s what began happening over the past couple of weeks: a large number of people discovered it’s okay to strongly disapprove of Barack Obama.  His popularity has always been buttressed by the conviction – very aggressively pushed by his supporters – that disapproval of his personal or official conduct is immoral.  You’re presumptively “racist” if you disagree with him, or at least a greedy tool of the Evil Rich, or a “Tea Party extremist.”

A negative mirror image of this narrative was installed around Mitt Romney, who is supposedly a fat-cat extremist (and, thanks to the insidious War On Mormons, a religious nut) who nobody likes… even though large numbers of people in many different states voted for him in the primaries.  Of course he has his critics, and I’m not seeking to dismiss the intensity or sincerity of that criticism… but the idea was to make Romney supporters feel isolated going into the general election, particularly the people who don’t really get involved in primary elections. 

Both of those convergent narratives began crumbling this week: Obama is deeply vulnerable, and his campaign has no real answer to criticism of his record – they’ve even tried floating an outright fraud, the now-infamous Rex Nutting charts that presented Obama as some kind of fiscal hawk.  (Stop laughing – major media figures took this garbage seriously for a couple of days, and Team Obama did push it.)  Major Democrats, beginning with Newark mayor Cory Booker, expressed criticism of the Obama campaign… and the Left reacted with shrieking hysteria and vows of personal destruction for the “traitors.”

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney effectively presented both substantive criticism of Obama, and a positive agenda.  Attacks on his business record that were supposed to destroy him through class-warfare tactics failed to draw blood.  The idea that he can win became widely accepted.  That doesn’t mean he won the 2012 argument… but unlike Barack Obama, he is offering one.

It happened fast, as preference cascades always do.

Update: I should add that the most powerful cascades occur when an artificially imposed sense of isolation crumbles.  That’s very definitely what is happening here.  Widespread popular discontent with the Obama presidency has been suppressed by making the unhappy campers feel marginalized.  The failure of that strategy is akin to watching a dam burst under high pressure.