WASHINGTON—Do little things mean a lot? Or not?

Four years ago, Barack Obama denounced petty attempts to "make a big election about small things." Now Republicans accuse the president of going small himself in pursuit of a second term. Whoever is to blame, this year the minor stuff is multiplying like fleas on a foxhound.

On the short list:

— Big Bird. He towers over Sesame Street at 8-foot-2 but amounts to a tiny financial target for budget-cutters. Yet the campaigns have been sniping about Big Bird ever since GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney turned the flightless yellow fellow into a debating point.

— Tweets. Limited to a tidy 140 characters, they nevertheless launch a lot of dustups (see Big Bird above). When the campaigns go low—like bickering over which is worse, strapping your Irish setter's carrier to the car roof or eating dog meat in Indonesia—they tend to tussle via Twitter.

— Trivial pursuits. Even hobbies beget trifling controversy. Obama is assailed for taking time out for more than 100 rounds of golf. Paul Ryan gets caught knocking an hour off his marathon record. Ann Romney's Olympic dressage horse inspires gibes about the couple's life of privilege.

— Bite-size controversies. For pushing healthy eating, first lady Michelle Obama is mocked as chief of the "food police." She's not the first to be caught in a small-potatoes controversy. President George H.W. Bush offended farmers by dissing broccoli. Barack Obama was labeled an elitist when he noted the rising cost of arugula.

Should candidates sweat this small stuff?

In the big picture, no. "People are more serious than that," says Rutgers University political science professor Richard Lau. After all, voters are busy mulling the economy, the nation's debt, health care, troubles in the Middle East.

Yet the paltry has its place.

Dinky issues can help a campaign distract attention from a major one, like high unemployment. And even a measly mistake can do damage when it fits into worries about competence or character—remember Dan Quayle misspelling "potato"? Or John Kerry's clumsy explanation that he had voted for military funding "before I voted against it"?

Plus, any little thing has potential to sway a few more swing-state votes in a tight race.

For example, while Ryan's overstatement of his marathon time won't matter to many people, it might grate on some amateur athletes, says Steve Frantzich, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Frantzich notes that he can "tell you down to the inch how far I broad-jumped in high school." It was 20 feet, 6 inches, back in 1966.

"People use a web of misinformation and information to come up with a conclusion about why you like or don't like a particular candidate," he said. "Sometimes those lines of reasoning are pretty tenuous."

That's democracy.

Voters get to choose a candidate for any reason they please—no matter how small.

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Follow Connie Cass on Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/ConnieCass