Back in my high school days, I took trigonometry and calculus. While 98% of what I learned then has since fallen by the wayside, the one thing I do remember is the concept of graph curves and tangents. For each given point along a curve, there was a tangent line that showed the slope of the curve. Most of us think of tangents as that which veers off course from the general direction of things. The political world is full of curves, like the trend lines of opinion polls over time. It is also full of tangents, those moments in time that can subtly--or not so subtly--change the course of public opinion.
Candidates and campaigns try to minimize the tangents that throw their campaigns off course, while maximizing those of their opponents. With candidates typically making the same stump speeches day after day on the campaign trail, and a 24/7 news cycle to fill, the media frequently obsess on tangents. Media outlets--left, right and center--differentiate themselves on the basis of tangents.
When push comes to shove, however, elections aren't about the tangents along the way, but rather about the trendline. Specifically, where will the trendline be on November 6?
When Todd Akin made his now-infamous remarks about "legitimate rape" and the female reproductive response to it, it was the perfect storm of conditions for it to become a very damaging tangent. Akin had just come off of a bruising primary, where opponents had run a number of attacks against him. The last minute ad buy by Claire McCaskill and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to sway GOP primary voters Akin's way did nothing to further trust of Akin as the strongest candidate. The national GOP convention was just days away, and party leaders--not relishing the idea of a flock of journalists obsessing on the Akin comments to further the "War on Women" narrative--had little choice but to distance themselves from the congressman's candidacy. For women, rape is more than public policy, it is a very real and natural fear. Add in the fact that Missouri election law would have allowed the candidate to withdraw without consequence had he done so within a few days, and soon major political funding organizations and a bevy of GOP Senators past and present were withdrawing support to force Akin's hand.
Now that the window of withdrawal is over and Todd Akin is in the U.S. Senate race for the duration, it is time to step back and take a look beyond that one tangent and at the trendline as a whole. Will Akin's comments affect his polling curve when it matters on November 6, or will it be just one very intense tangent?
Time will tell...
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