Of Twitter, Nate Silver, and Straw Men

One of the problems with Twitter is that people can easily take what you write out of context. Last Friday, for instance, Nate Silver criticized me for “poor political punditry” because of a tweet in which I said “A few more jobs reports like this and Romney et al. are going to be measuring the drapes for the [White House]”:

The jobs numbers are awful, but they’ve also provided fodder for some poor political punditry.

I won’t name names, since the people in question are normally thoughtful writers. But you can already find an article keyed off the news with the headline “How a one-term president is made.” And a political scientist in my Twitter feed wrote of how numbers like these will have Mitt Romney “measuring the drapes” in the White House.

I do not mean to suggest that the unemployment numbers are unimportant as a news story. To the contrary, recent polls find that four times as many people list jobs rather than the budget deficit as a top priority, even though the latter issue has gotten more press attention lately.

But if you’re going to write about the jobs numbers as a horse race story, you ought to do it right, and that means keeping an eye on the big picture.

Silver goes on to lecture us about how it’s only one jobs report, we should keep an eye on the big picture, and that unemployment is a lagging indicator and a relatively weak predictor of presidential outcomes. I agree! That’s why I wrote “a few more jobs reports like this,” why I’ve repeatedly written about the lack of a strong relationship between unemployment and presidential outcomes (though see Carlisle Rainey), and why I’ve closely tracked the forecasting models, (lack of) personal income growth, etc.

To put my tweet in a larger context, the point I was making is this: Obama needs the economy to start turning around soon or the lags involved could doom his re-election campaign. One jobs report is unlikely to make a difference on its own, especially given that jobs are a lagging indicator, but he’s in increasingly big trouble each month that we don’t see signs of a significant recovery. That opinion doesn’t fit into 140 characters, but it’s consistent with what I’ve been writing for months.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.