Something I’ve written about before and have been a long-time critic of is the problem of wine writers forcing a narrative or inducing a conflict where one does not exist in the wine world. Minor regulatory disputes become a massive scandal in the world of California Zinfandel or the emergence of advocates for natural, terroir-driven wines are in fact heralding a great apocalyptic reckoning for Robert Parker and his ilk. This can’t merely be indicative of an incrementally diversifying wine world, can it? No! This must be the crucible of our age!
Because this is an interest of mine, it was fascinating to see these same problems play out in mainstream political journalism over the 2012 United States Elections. I took great Schadenfreude in seeing the bumbling, blustering, woefully outmoded media come to terms with what, if one bothered to actually pay attention, was, while not inevitable, the overwhelmingly likely scenario.
To me, this election had always seemed very similar to the 2004 campaign that resulted in the (re?)election of George W. Bush. You have a weakened, divisive president during a difficult time for the country being challenged by a dubiously charismatic New England weirdo with little crossover appeal.
Of course, there was a marked difference between the Kerry campaign and the Romney campaign, with Romney doubling down on the angry white vote by selecting Ryan as his running mate and then tripling down on the angry white male vote by ineffectively distancing himself from anti-minority and anti-woman comments made by prominent figures in the Republican party. This, coupled with his plutocratic airs (although Kerry was, in fact, wealthier, he spent his entire life in public service, not in corporate raiding), meant that you had the perfect figure for a broad coalition of reasonable people to rally against.
Although I was nervous about this election given the massive amount of money poured into backing Romney, the egregious efforts at voter suppression, and the general specter of uncertainty in elections in the post-Citizens United world, I took great comfort in the fact that all reasonable data pointed to a fairly close popular vote result but a clear Obama electoral victory. All of this was, of course, tracked and analyzed by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com.
Now, FiveThirtyEight is not just one poll, nor is it just an aggregator. It is a poll aggregator that compares polls against historic performance and uses a proprietary system of weighting to reflect each poll’s historic bias. Based on all the data it aggregates and analyzes, it uses computer models to run scenarios and measure outcomes, reporting how often a particular candidate would win given all the current data. From the moment that Romney was the nominee until election day, Obama was always the favorite to win the election and, except for a few short periods of time, always favored to win at least 290 electoral votes, more than Bush’s “mandate”-earning 286 electoral votes in 2004. In the last couple weeks leading up to the election, all the polling data pointed to Obama being an overwhelming favorite, ultimately topping out at over 90% probability of victory on Monday.
And Silver, to be fair, responded to the criticism levied against him, pointing out that that it still was possible for Romney to win, but that it was not probable. The possibility of a Romney victory would be the result of a significant discrepancies in voter turnout against predictions or a fairly massive polling bias in favor of the President, both of which the Romney campaign were not only counting on, but firmly believed to be the case. But, in the end, the polling data was more or less accurate (as it has been in the last several elections, something Silver uses in his models) and it played out exactly as expected. If anything, the models underestimated Democratic turnout and Obama won by larger (albeit statistically insignificant) margins in many of the battleground states.
Why then, despite the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, did the media (not just the partisan pundits) insist on calling this race a tossup into the eleventh hour? It can’t be a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics, because all of these networks are the same ones which employ teams of people to call a state’s election results as quickly after the polls close as possible. I suppose it could be a misunderstanding of the American electoral system, where the winner of the popular vote does not always win the electoral vote, so that the relatively close (but not as close as you think) popular vote numbers encouraged belief in Romney’s chances despite, in the last week or so, not leading in the polls in a single battleground state except North Carolina. But that would be an unfortunate dereliction of duty for a political journalist to not understand that fundamental quirk of the American system.
(As an aside, it’s interesting that while the American Presidential election system, and its Federal system in general, was developed as a compromise to curb the influence of larger states and increase the influence of smaller states, that no longer appears to be the case. With only one large electoral prize, Texas, firmly in Republican hands, the heavily populated and reliably Democratic Northeast, Pacific Coast, and Great Lakes region now firmly have the upper hand in determining the outcome of the Presidential election, giving Republican candidates the uphill battle of having to win far more swing states than do Democrats. Additionally, the trends of the last two elections have shown many historic swing states shifting toward a stronger democratic lean, at least in national elections.)
Why then was there this mass media delusion? Evidence, history, and trends all supported Obama being the clear favorite, but that wasn’t the narrative that journalists wanted to tell, so instead we heard assertions not just of a too close to predict election, but also firm belief in anywhere from a slim to landslide Romney win.
Now, many of these people were partisan hacks, though most of them were partisan hacks who were not just putting on airs, they actually believed in the Romney Inevitability. By all reports, the Romney campaign firmly believed in likely, if not inevitable, victory. Now, in a reasonable world, Romney’s campaign advisors should never work in politics again, however in all likelihood they’ll end up as Fox New commentators instead.
But even if it was the partisan pundits who were declaring landslide Romney victories, the ostensible journalists weren’t doing much to correct those dubious pronouncements or at least temper them with facts. They wanted the same narrative to unfold as well. They wanted a close election–an election that was, in all likelihood, virtually impossible to actually occur, and all for what reason? To serve their own craven interests and not the public good because the facts were getting in the way of a good story.
(Yes, I know it’s not the job of cable news to serve the public good, but it should at least be in the interest of ostensibly unbiased journalists to report the facts and not let partisan talking points run roughshod over reality.)
When compared against the 2004 election which, despite some early exit poll optimism for Kerry, was largely reported as an inevitable Bush victory (never mind that Kerry won more electoral votes and a slightly greater share of the popular vote than did Romney), 2012’s coverage seems all the more laughable and is indicative to me of the continued precipitous decline of mainstream mass media journalism’s effective relevance and the continued rise of analytic iconoclast’s like Silver. And bear in mind that Silver makes no claims of being a political expert but merely a numbers whiz. The facts borne out by mathematical analysis are the political experts.
But, of course, the facts have a well-known liberal bias, which is why they always need to be tempered by good journalism.
For another less-than-rosy view of Americana, check out Clint’s article on the Endeavor’s 747-assisted last flight.