Political scientists are trying to ruin journalists’ fun

Great piece in Bloomberg View:

Wright then produces a menu of Romney comeback narratives for reporters to seize upon, mercilessly flog and then abandon in turn for still fresher diversions.

Anyone who has witnessed a presidential campaign or two will find this premise familiar. As long as there are newspapers to sell, web traffic to juice and TV ratings to increase, we’ll have incentives for an “October surprise” or a “game changer” or whatever cliché comes next.

But look around: This sacred tradition is increasingly imperiled. In fact, the media’s capacity for creating self-serving, fanciful political narratives is more constrained today than ever. An army of spoilsports — many with Ph.Ds in political science — has established camp on the banks of the Web, from which it takes aim at whatever diaphanous journalistic concoctions float past.

Take John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington who runs the annoyingly excellentMonkey Cage blog (and who co-authored this for Bloomberg View). The guy is a total downer.

Every time some reporter starts to have a little narrative fun, Sides gets all political science-y on them. Here he is tsk-tsking Politico’s Jonathan Martin for writing that, based on a reading of grim economic data, Barack Obama‘s re-election should be “close to a mathematical impossibility.”

First, I wish Martin had at least quoted some political science or some forecasting model or something. Anything, really. Because otherwise the evidence for this assertion is terribly lacking.

Martin actually hedged his assertion, in part by attributing it to Republicans bewildered by Obama’s campaign strength. But here is Monkey Cage contributor Andrew Gelman of Columbia analyzing an unhedged version of the pitch by Niall Ferguson. (If you don’t want to click through, just trust me: It isn’t pretty.)

To bring this home, here’s Sides again stating that regardless of what you’ve heard or imagined, the economic fundamentals do not spell doom for Obama. If anything, they might give him a slight edge in the campaign.

Look, I’m basically on the side of the “narrative” guys. I enjoy making up half-baked theories and then sending them downstream and seeing what happens. But these Monkey Cage types are draining all the hijinx out of the game. This is war.

The campaign narrative is so much more fun.  It’s hard even for many of us political scientists to resist it.  Sides and others have certainly created a much-needed corrective to the media seeing pretty much everything as about the campaign.  That said, some elements of the campaign are going to matter in a close race.  E.g., I think the 47% matters at the margins and I think the fact that Romney really is rich plutocrat who struggles to connect with ordinary voters matters.  I just think the state of the economy, partisanship, and presidential approval matters a lot more.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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