‘Moneyball’-ing election coverage

This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post on November 27, 2013.

There was an interesting discussion on Saturday’s “Up with Steve Kornacki” between Kornacki and John Sides, a political scientist who co-wrote The Gamble: Choice and Change in the 2012 Presidential Election, which takes the view that presidential elections are largely static stalemates that turn more on demographic and economic considerations than so-called “game changers” like Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comment or Obama’s weak performance in the first debate.

Starting at about 4:45 in the clip, here’s the exchange:

STEVE KORNACKI: The biggest game change, for lack of a better term, that everyone talks about in the 2012 campaign is the “47 percent” video of Mitt Romney. And Democrats used that endlessly. It got so much coverage. What is your take on what the actual effect of that was on President Obama winning last year by about 5 million votes?

JOHN SIDES: If you look at the average of the polls that were in the field in and around the release of that video, you just didn’t see a lot of movement. The best we were able to determine drilling down into the polling data that we had at our disposal was that some Republican voters who were supporters of Romney perhaps became temporarily undecided, but they came right back to Romney after the first debate.

The actual effect was nil.

Karen Finney, a former spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee who now works for MSNBC, pushed back on Sides’ analysis and spoke for campaign operative conventional wisdom, which is that campaigns chase after a tiny sliver of undecided voters in the middle and that something like the Romney “47 percent” video can have an enormous impact by moving the needle among that small group. (Finney also said the backlash against voter ID laws, which activated Democratic voters, likely had a bigger impact than the “47 percent” comment. I suspect she’s right.)

Sides represents the “Moneyball”/Nate Silver approach to campaigns, which is that metrics matter, i.e., anything is subject to prediction if you have enough data points and you know which one matter and which ones don’t. Finney represents the classical campaign approach, which is that there are two stable bases of voters — one Democratic, one Republican — and elections are determined by the candidates’ messages, the campaigns’ get-out-the-vote efforts, etc.

They’re both right to an extent, but I am hopeful that Sides’ approach will become a bigger part of campaign coverage in the 2016 election. The emphasis on narrative, momentum and gaffes in the last few presidential elections has been great for cable news, Politico.com, et al., but if those things have little impact on the outcome of an election, we should probably see more reporting on the things that do.

With the exception of investigative and explanatory reporting by the New York Times, Washington Post, and a few others, most media organizations still cover political campaigns like a sports beat. Reporters and producers travel with the campaigns, cover what the candidate is doing that day, get candidate reaction to whatever else is going on that day, and dig for scoops. The campaign coverage accumulates into a sort of travel diary.

Some media organizations should consider giving up their spot on the campaign bus and trying to stand out from the crowd by devoting those resources to reporting on things that are at least as likely to have a significant impact on the election: (1) analysis of demographics and voting patterns, (2) investigative reporting on the impact of changes to early voting, voter ID requirements, and other voting laws, and (3) more sophisticated analysis of campaigns’ social policy promises.


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