Monday, December 10, 2012

The Worst Reporting of the 2012 Presidential Campaign

The 2012 Presidential election was littered with bad reporting and even worse predictions. The commentariat never admitted its fault[1] when much of what they expected to happen failed to materialize, largely because they were as clueless as the Romney campaign about the demographic shift in the electorate that helped propel the President to re-election. As Frank Rich noted in New York Magazine, after the months and months of reporting about the closeness of the election, it was called for Obama a whopping 12 minutes later than his first win in 2008[2]. I will leave it to others to dissect how so many got so much so wrong and instead bask in the wrongness of it all:

2012 Was 2004 Redux: One of journalism’s key touchstones is the lazy analogy. Like Linus’s security blanket, reporters cling to the past as prologue to the present with a force and willfulness familiar to any parent of a six-year old. In this case, the 2012 election was seen as a replay of 2004, where a purportedly unpopular President used a barrage of negative advertising to define his wealthy, Massachusetts-based challenger as an out of touch plutocrat and world class flip-flopper, allowing him to squeak by and win re-election.

Seems reasonable on its face, right? The only problem with this analogy is that it’s not true. Bush narrowly won re-election in 2004 by winning Ohio by roughly 119,000 votes, or a swing in the vote total roughly equivalent to the seating capacity of The Ohio State University football stadium. Had Bush lost Ohio, he would have lost the election. Obama, on the other hand, cleared the 270 electoral vote bar easily, and could have lost the three states where his win was the narrowest – Florida, Ohio and Virginia – and still won.

Paul Ryan, “Game Changer”: Romney’s campaign hit a supposed “reset” button on August 11th when he selected Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate.  News reports referred to the pick as “bold” and talked about how Ryan’s selection would “energize” the conservative base. Many journalists thought the decision would shake up the race in the way a “safer” pick[3] would not. And of course, after a few days of fawning coverage, (and to the media’s credit), a dissection of Ryan’s record - his radical proposals for shrinking the social safety net and slavish devotion to every-man-for-himself Randian dogma, Mitt sent him to a Cheney-esque “undisclosed location” for the rest of the campaign, popping up briefly to have his lunch money stolen by Vice President Biden at their debate before disappearing permanently[4].

Ohio, Ohio, Ohio:  Journalists love nothing more than resurrecting the sainted spirit of Tim Russert, who famously said in 2000 that the election between Al Gore and George W. Bush came down to Florida, Florida, Florida.  Flash to twelve years later, and the election was supposed to come down to the Buckeye State. And while it is true that Ohio was hard fought and both campaigns spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to win its 18 electoral votes, the outcome, an Obama win by 3 points, was immaterial.

Michigan, Minnesota & Pennsylvania: In the election’s waning days, a flurry of articles and reporting appeared stating that these three states, none of which had gone for a Republican in the last 20 years, were suddenly “in play[5].” The basis of these stories, like so much of what passed for “reporting” during the campaign, were dodgy polls and journalistic laziness. So severe was the irritation of Obama campaign manager David Axelrod at the implausibility of these claims, he offered to shave the mustache that had adorned his upper lip for the past 40 years if the President failed to win these three states. In the end, none of the three was close, with Obama winning Pennsylvania by 5 points, Minnesota by 7 and Michigan by 10[6].

The Electoral Vote/Popular Vote Schism: In this fairy tale scenario[7], journalists speculated that Mitt Romney would win the popular vote but the President would be re-elected because he would win the electoral vote. Indeed, no less an “expert” than ├╝ber-wonk Ezra Klein saw this as a probability just 11 days before the election[8]. But Klein was not alone, a CNN article the day before the election made a similar assertion[9].  In the end, Obama won a clear majority of both, an outcome that also buried, at least for four years, the media’s other “black swan,” a 269-269 electoral vote “tie” that would have theoretically led to a Romney-Biden Administration[10].

Gallup: This once esteemed organization was the Patient Zero for bad polling that led to even worse reporting. An after action analysis of more than 20 organizations that polled during the campaign had Gallup dead last[11], yet their outlier national poll, which had Romney up nationally by 7 points[12] on October 17th and 5 points[13] on October 29th, was frequently cited by the media as proof of everything from Romney’s post-Denver debate surge to the possibility of the aforementioned electoral vote/popular vote split decision. Gallup was wrong, really wrong, about this election, yet its “brand” afforded it a place above all others even as its polling results were wildly inconsistent with the rest of the pack.

The Denver Debate Mattered: At the first Presidential debate, Mitt Romney scored what all agreed was a clear win.  His polling ticked up in the days afterward and suddenly the hive detected a race that was tipping in his favor; except it was not. As Nate Silver pointed out at the time, Romney’s momentum from Denver (which was real) had eroded within a few days and polling slowly but surely swung back to the President’s favor up to and past the duo’s final debate[14].  Indeed, what was underreported was the fact that Obama’s clean wins in the second and third debates mattered as much as Romney’s ludicrous statements about “binders full of women” and his failed “gotcha” moment about the Benghazi attack.

The Unemployment Rate: Much was made over the fact that no President had been re-elected with an unemployment rate above 7.2% since FDR in 1936[15] as a way of reminding people that the election was REALLLLY CLOSE. Well, Obama won, and handily, how’s that working out for you?

Obama Won No Mandate: Admittedly, this trope was ginned up largely by people on the right, but even more mainstream journalists questioned whether the first Democrat since FDR to win more than 50% of the vote twice and who added seats in the House and Senate (where Democrats won the popular vote nationally as well) was given a mandate by the American people.  While it is true that the overall vote was down slightly from 2008, in the 12 “swing” states, it was up, albeit, nominally (.28%) and Obama won 11 out of 12[16]. Obama’s win also marked the fifth time in the last six Presidential elections that the Democrat won the popular vote and the fourth time the Democratic nominee won more than 330 electoral votes. This plays into a larger discussion of how Republicans try and convince people that the country is “center-right” in its leanings, when all evidence nationally is to the contrary, but that’s a story for another time.

Ultimately, the failing of the media (and Romney for that matter) in seeing how the election would turn out stemmed from an unwillingness to accept an evolving reality about our country, its demographics and the issues that matter to people. Reporters were too willing to accept information from supposedly reliable sources like Gallup, while doubting the statistical and data-driven work best exemplified by Nate Silver. And all of this would be excusable if the media wasn’t paid to get this shit right, but they are, and they should.  


[1]   This was particularly true among right-wing commentators such as George Will and Michael Barone, both of whom predicated a Romney win with more than 300 electoral votes; never mind Peggy Noonan, who bizarrely claimed the day before Election Day that the “vibrations” for a Romney win existed based on a few rallies and yard signs (see: Suffice to say, no mea culpas (or better yet, firings) resulted from these statements.
[3]   The usual suspects were former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and Ohio Senator Rob Portman.
[4]   Naturally, the same folks who lauded Romney’s selection of Ryan ended up criticizing him for not going with the “safe” option of Rob Portman. Irony machines around the country were heard breaking at that change in opinion.
[5]   See, e.g.,,
[6]   For the purposes of this article, percentages and margins of victory are based on the total state vote, including votes for third party candidates.    
[7]   Don’t get me started about 2000, or 1876 for that matter, where this actually happened. Both of those elections were “won” under sketchy circumstances that involved, at best, questionable legal precedent (2000) and at worse, the raw exercise of unchecked political power (2000 and 1876).
[15]   Aaron Blake, a writer for The Washington Post, called it the most overrated statistic of the 2012 campaign:

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