Mythical Backlashes and Specious Explanations

One of the most dangerous temptations of the political reporter is over-interpretation of polls, the need to explain every apparent movement in this week's poll with reference to events that just happened. The result is a whole lot of utterly unsubstantiated claims explaining things lots of reporters don't even understand or that may not actually have occurred at all. Only coverage of the stock market, where every news report confidently explains even the tiniest movement in share prices ("Apple shares fell one-tenth of a point today, with investors expressing concern after Billy Wilson of Saginaw, Michigan decided to buy a Droid to replace the iPhone he dropped in the toilet"), comes close. There are two reasons why: the first is that most reporters don't understand, or willfully ignore, what a "margin of error" represents (meaning they talk about movement within the margin of error as though it represents something real, when it isn't). The second is that when you have to write every day, you have to say something and explain to your readers/viewers/listeners what's going on, so there's an impulse to link effects (poll blips) with purported causes (events on the trail). I'm going to pick on Glenn Thrush, a perfectly good reporter with POLITICO who produced a particularly bad example of what I'm talking about. Here's the beginning of his story:

A lot of politicians can go negative without losing too much altitude, but President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to be that guy.

The comfy 6-point lead Obama enjoyed over Mitt Romney during the brutal GOP primary season has all but evaporated as the mercury rises, dropping to a 1.6 percent lead in the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls.

More important, that downward trend has been reflected in polls of battleground states, and strategists on both sides of the fight expect the race to dwell in the margin of error no man's land until Election Day.

Obama's sag — and it’s definitely more of a sag than a collapse — is a natural function of reluctant Republicans finally coalescing behind Romney, who clinched the nomination Tuesday night with a victory in Texas.

But the president's enemies, and a few of his friends, think his in-your-face negativity, on display in his attacks on Bain Capital and a snark offensive that included comparing Romney's statements to a "cow pie of distortion," have produced a backlash among independent voters who have finally given up the image of Obama as a new-breed politician.

Let's examine the claim here: Some months ago, Obama held a lead of six points over Romney, and in the latest average of polls, that lead is 1.6 points. Thrush acknowledges that Republicans are coalescing behind Romney, but then sets that aside for the real reason: a backlash among independents, who are angry at Obama for criticizing Mitt Romney. So here comes the evidence for the independents' negativity backlash!

Or ... not. Over the ensuing 1,500 words of the story, Thrush does not offer a single piece of evidence that 1) independents are turning away from Obama, or 2) they're turning away because he's criticizing Romney. What he gives us are some state polls showing the race has tightened, and a bunch of comments from people about how there might be a backlash, or there really is a backlash, or no way is there a backlash, and also a bunch of other stuff about what people think Obama and Romney each need to do to win. In other words, he wrote a 1,700-word story attempting to demonstrate a very specific empirical claim—independents are turned off by Obama criticizing Romney and are moving away from him because of it—without a single piece of evidence to support it.

I don't mean to pick on Thrush, because as I said before, he's a fine reporter and many of his colleagues do this kind of thing all the time. And there's nothing wrong with writing something speculative. But if you do that, you really need to do better than this. It's obvious that the Washington chattering class is very displeased with the fact that Barack Obama, who is running for re-election, would stoop so low as to criticize his opponent, who incidentally has spent the last couple of years travelling around the country attacking Obama in spectacularly dishonest ways. They think it's beneath the president to disagree with his opponent, when four years ago he ran a campaign that was inspiring for many people. That this politician would engage in something as unseemly as politics is profoundly disappointing to them.

But are the voters equally displeased and disappointed? If there was any evidence to suggest they had, I'm guessing Glenn Thrush would have found it. Nobody he talked to for his story could give him any such evidence. I haven't seen it. So maybe it doesn't exist.

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