The Etch-a-Sketch Press

How the media constructed another Romney gaffe—and why it is unlikely to matter

NEW HAMPSHIRE — Yesterday, Etch-a-Sketch became the media’s favorite metaphor for Mitt Romney’s ideological flexibility. But the iconic children’s toy is an equally good representation of the media’s tendency to draw the picture it wants of our political candidates.

The kerfuffle began when Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom invoked the popular toy during an interview with John Fugelsang on CNN:

FUGELSANG: Good morning, sir. It’s fair to say that John McCain was considerably a more moderate candidate than the ones that Governor Romney faces now. Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?

FEHRNSTROM: Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.

The clip, which at first glance seemed to confirm the worst stereotypes (and conservatives’ worst fears) about Romney and included a compelling visual metaphor, was immediately seized on by the press, the Obama campaign, and Romney’s rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, launching what The Washington Post‘s Election 2012 blog called a “day-long media firestorm.” Here in New Hampshire, The Boston Globe ran print and online stories and its website carried several other wire stories mentioning the controversy. (The New Hampshire Union Leader also ran a Reuters wire story in today’s print edition, though commendably the Nashua Telegraph and Concord Monitor did not.)

Amid the avalanche of coverage, the more careful reporters and pundits acknowledged the ambiguity of Fehrnstrom’s statement, which did not specify, as The Washington Post‘s Felicia Sonmez put it, “whether he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign or rather to Romney’s positions on the issues.” (Fehrnstrom later tried to clarify that he was referring to the dynamics of the campaign changing in the general election.) Politico’s Alexander Burns, for instance, pointed out that “Fehrnstrom’s language wasn’t quite so precise and it was unclear whether the Etch A Sketch was supposed to represent the 2012 political landscape or the candidate for which he works.”

Similarly, TPM’s Benjy Sarlin and Evan McMorris-Santoro wrote that “[t]he ‘Etch-A-Sketch’ line is at least somewhat ambiguous. Fehrnstrom has said in previous interviews that the general election is a ‘reset button,’ referring more to the notion that Romney will be able to confront the president without having to fend off a bunch of damaging attacks from his rivals at all times.” The American Prospect‘s Paul Waldman was more direct: “Does anyone really believe that a top Romney aide was saying that Romney was going to change his positions for the general election? Of course not. From a strategic point of view, a wiping of the slate between the primary and general election campaigns is not only what most presidential campaigns want, it’s what most of them actually do.”

To erase this ambiguity, though, other reporters and pundits constructed paraphrases of Fehrnstrom that directly echoed the dominant narrative about Romney. For instance, the AP’s David Espo described Fehrnstrom’s statement as “an astonishing admission Wednesday by one of Romney’s top aides” that his “primary-season policy positions may be no more lasting than squiggles on a child’s Etch A Sketch drawing toy.” Similarly, TPM’s Josh Marshall claimed that Romney’s “top aide said voters’ minds were like an Etch-a-Sketch: Mitt could reposition back to the center in time for the general election with little damage from the primaries. In other words, you just repaint the picture. No one remembers.” The process by which the Fehrnstrom clip was quickly massaged into a more damaging paraphrase echoes the similar process that took place with Romney’s quote “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” as well as previous statements by Al Gore about his role in supporting the development of the Internet and John Kerry’s positions on a bill appropriating funds for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What’s going on? Romney seems to have what New York Times Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt called a pattern of “bad days after good wins.” Politico’s Dylan Byers notes that “Every time it seems like Mitt Romney is stepping into his groove, he goes and says something that kills his momentum.” And TPM’s McMorris-Santoro went so far as to try to create “an exhaustive list” of the times that Romney has “squashed good news like a bug at a Mississippi campaign rally.”

The most obvious explanation is that Romney is not a gifted politician and sometimes inadvertently reinforces stereotypes of himself as rich, awkward, a flip-flopper, etc.—or comes close enough that the media can frame the episodes as consistent with the narrative—but that does not entirely explain the Fehrnstrom explosion. While the Etch-a-Sketch line might have attracted some attention in any context, it is likely that the media is especially receptive to potentially damaging anecdotes about Romney after wins because he is very likely to win the nomination. The hype around these gaffes helps to meet the professional and economic incentives to maintain viewer and reader interest in the race despite the overwhelming odds faced by Romney’s rivals.

In an attempt to justify the media feeding frenzy, some of the coverage offered explicit arguments about the significance of the episode—but that meta-commentary only illustrated how the media tends to exaggerate the importance of episodes like this one. For example, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza claimed that “what this episode highlights is how small things in modern politics can — and often do — become big things”:

Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak. Uncertainty about how many houses you own. Corporations are people too. Windsurfing as a pastime. Curt Schilling as a Yankees fan. And those are just the handful we thought of off the top of our heads.

…Small things are also often seen by voters as a window into the true nature of a candidate or a campaign. It wasn’t that John Kerry ordered swiss cheese on his cheesesteak; it was that in so doing he proved he wasn’t a regular guy. It wasn’t that George H.W. Bush seemed to be amazed at a grocery scanner; it was that it affirmed that he was out of touch with the pocketbook concerns of regular people.

Which brings us back to the Etch-a-Sketch incident. What Fehrnstrom actually meant doesn’t matter at this point. The Etch a Sketch line will now have a life of its own that will continue to be a sore spot for Romney and his campaign for the foreseeable future. (Can you really see a scenario where Democrats drop it entirely? We can’t.)

One sentence about an Etch a Sketch isn’t going to decide whether Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee (he almost certainly will) or whether he can beat President Obama in the fall.

But, it’s one more piece of evidence that Democrats will use to paint Romney as a politician’s politician — willing to say whatever he thinks the audience he’s in front of wants to hear.

And that’s why it matters.

But even if the episode is just “one piece of evidence,” we should be able to find some indication that campaign gaffes affect voters. In reality, though, the evidence suggests that these types of events have little electoral significance. None of the gaffes that Cillizza highlights—from Swiss cheese on a cheesesteak to uncertainty about how many houses you own—had significant effects on the outcome of those presidential campaigns. (In addition, the grocery store scanner episode is disputed and appears to be false.)

For instance, when George Washington University political scientist John Sides looked at five events from the 2008 campaign identified by the journalists Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in their book The Battle for America as especially significant, he found they had “basically had no impact on voters nationwide.” Likewise, a comprehensive review of pre-election trial heat polls by the political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert S. Erickson (gated) found that “During the early campaign—roughly the 100 days preceding the late-summer conventions—campaign shocks are large but temporary; news about the campaign affects voters but is eventually forgotten and thus has little impact on the final outcome.”

We’re currently 158 days from the Republican convention, and “Etch a Sketch-gate” will likely prove to be just as inconsequential. By the time the general election rolls around, the incident will most likely be forgotten. And even if it remains salient, it’s unlikely to change voters’ minds since, as Cillizza concedes, “How you view the Etch a Sketch incident…depends in large part on how you view Romney.” Better to rethink how you view the “freak show” aspect of the political press instead.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan.