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.