Sunday, October 28, 2012

You can't kill an idea. You can't kill Mittmentum.

This Chait post is nearly five days old--ancient history!--but I just found it, and it echoes my feelings on the election so well that I couldn't not share:
In recent days, the vibe emanating from Mitt Romney’s campaign has grown downright giddy. Despite a lack of any evident positive momentum over the last week — indeed, in the face of a slight decline from its post-Denver high — the Romney camp is suddenly bursting with talk that it will not only win but win handily. (“We’re going to win,” said one of the former Massachusetts governor’s closest advisers. “Seriously, 305 electoral votes.”) 
This is a bluff. Romney is carefully attempting to project an atmosphere of momentum, in the hopes of winning positive media coverage and, thus, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy... 
...Obama enjoys a clear electoral college lead. He is ahead by at least a couple points in enough states to make him president. Adding to his base of uncontested states, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin would give Obama 271 electoral votes. According to the current polling averages compiled at fivethirtyeight.com, Obama leads Nevada by 3.5 percent, Ohio by 2.9 percent, and Wisconsin by 4 percent. Should any of those fail, Virginia and Colorado are nearly dead even. (Obama leads by 0.7 percent and 1.0 percent, respectively.) If you don’t want to rely on Nate Silver — and you should rely on him! — the polling averages at realclearpolitics, the conservative-leaning site, don’t differ much, either... 
Obama’s lead is narrow — narrow enough that the polling might well be wrong and Romney could win. But he is leading, his lead is not declining, and the widespread perception that Romney is pulling ahead is Romney’s campaign suckering the press corps with a confidence game.  
 As we saw following the first debate, media chatter matters. The strangely persistent idea that the country is in the thrall of Mittmentum--an idea for which there is absolutely no empirical support at the moment--may not result in the landslide victory that Romney's camp is prognosticating, but sure might churn up an extra point or two for Romney in the final balance, which is plenty to sway the election. You'd think that reporters would take steps to limit their own impact on events, like psychological researchers instituting a double-blind to prevent the very act of observation from contaminating experimental results. You'd be wrong. The Fourth Estate's best solution has been to cover its eyes and pretend away the obvious feedback loop; this has the nifty side effect of preemptively absolving its mouthpieces from even the possibility of malpractice, because in the immortal not-quite words of Uncle Ben, with no power comes no responsibility. "If Romney says he's winning, who are we to second-guess him?" you can hear the editors of America saying. "He sounds pretty sure of himself, it's all news, and it's a wash in the end, so let's run with it."

Other, less determinedly self-deluded institutions are, by contrast, completely aware of the state of things, and as the Romney campaign has demonstrated, quite happy to take advantage of the media's strange blind spot.

The situation could of course be remedied by fostering a general respect for numbers and quantitative techniques in newsrooms, so that the drumbeat of optimistic expectations from the Romney camp would be drowned out by the drumbeat of polls confirming that the Romney camp is full of it. But people don't go to j-school because they're good at math, and statistics make for crappy copy anyway.

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