Panelists discussed the importance of the 2012 political race between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at this week’s “Students Talk Back, a Public Policy and Politics Forum” hosted by the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics and the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy’s Schwarzenegger Institute.
The panel was co-moderated by Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute and Annalise Mantz, editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. Daniel Rothberg, a junior majoring in political science and special projects editor at the Daily Trojan served as a student panelist.
This week’s two guest panelists were Dan Balz, a journalist for the Washington Post and the author of Collision 2012, and Lynn Vavreck, a political science professor at UCLA and co-writer of The Gamble. Balz’s book deals with the campaign strategists’ opinions on the campaign. Vavreck’s book takes a “moneyball” approach to the 2012 election, and attempts to discover what truly affected the campaign results.
“Journalists would say everything matters in the campaign,” Balz said. “Political scientists would say that nothing matters in the campaign.”
Yet both Balz and Vavreck could agree that the economy controls a campaign.
“If I asked you to make a list of the top five moments of 2012, everyone would put the 47 percent video,” Vavreck said. “But the question is, did [the items on that list] change the outcome?”
Vavreck said she doesn’t believe the 47 percent video had an effect on the outcome of the election, but instead thinks that the improving economy gave Obama the advantage he needed to win.
Balz said Romney also agreed with this analysis. Balz interviewed Romney one-on-one last January.
“His first answer to why he lost is that the economy got better and he could not overcome that,” Balz said.
Balz later said that perhaps the most significant realization he took from his interview with Romney, was an understanding of Romney on a personal level.
“We forget sometimes that [politicians] are human beings,” Balz said. “To see that side of Gov. Romney was an important thing to illuminate in the book.”
Both panelists discussed the use of “big data” in the 2012 campaign and agreed that the Obama campaign commanded the use of statistics.
“[The Obama campaign] developed three different scores: a support score, a turnout score and a persuasion score,” Balz said.
The score showed support for the Democratic Party, the turnout score showed probability at turning up at the polls, and the persuasion score showed how easily someone could be persuaded to support Obama. Using these scores, the campaign developed a powerful targeting system to win swing counties in swing states.
When asked if Romney could have won under a different set of circumstances, Vavreck and Balz had differing opinions.
“My answer is yes,” Vavreck said. “The easiest way for him to do that would be if the economy was different than it was.”
Balz said he did not think Romney could have won, as part of the reason why Romney ultimately lost came from his primary campaign.
“Partially, his message was inconsistent. He allowed himself to go too far to the right,” Balz said.
Many students who attended the discussion found Vavreck’s statistical approach to be interesting.
“Something that really stood out to me was when [Vavreck] talked about was how the women’s reproductive rights [debate] actually had a bigger effect on men than on the women themselves,” said Marisa Tsai, a senior majoring in international relations and global economy.