Morris’ House of Cards

I hesitate to use Dick Morris as an example of anything other than what some people will do to turn a buck. But RealClearPolitics published a column by Morris offering his expert analysis of what’s ahead in the presidential contest, and since it offers a virtually perfect illustration of how numbers can be used by the dedicated spinner to paint a deceiving picture, I’ll briskly deconstruct it.

Morris’ purpose is to predict–more than six months in advance, mind you–that not only is Mitt Romney going to win, but he’s going to win by a landslide.

The bedrock of Morris’ “analysis” is the so-called “incumbent rule,” the tarnished principle, seriously battered in 2004 to the eternal chagrin of Democrats, that undecided voters break sharply against incumbent presidents. It’s a “rule,” BTW, that still has strong salience in many down-ballot races, where incumbent support is often artificially boosted by superior name recognition until the deal is about to go down.

But Morris doesn’t mention recent doubts about the “incumbent rule,” instead just laboriously adding up the gap between an incumbent’s standing in the final Gallup Poll going back to 1964, comparing it to the actual results, and decreeing that as a scientific measurement of how undecideds have broken. He even, hilariously, adds up the total “shift” from final Gallup to final results over eight elections to yield this most dubious of statistics:

In other words, of the total of 19 points that shifted between the final poll and the election results, 17 points or 89 percent went to the challenger.

Obscured, of course, in this flurry of numbers is the fact that in the only relevant election in the last two decades, 2004, the incumbent actually gained points after the final Gallup.

But now that he’s “proved” Obama’s going to get killed in the late going, Morris busily works at setting the lowest possible baseline for where he’s likely to be, using a recent Rasmussen poll (of course) showing Obama trailing Romney among likely voters (another dubious standard this far out from the election) 48-44. So on the apparent theory that Obama will get none of the undecided voter, Morris figures he’s on his way to at least an eleven-point loss.

For dessert, he adds these observations (my comments are in brackets):

There are other indications of a Republican landslide in the offing. Party identification has moved a net of eight points toward the GOP since the last election [according to Gallup, the net shift has been just two points]. In Senate races, there are currently eight Democratic-held seats where Republicans are now leading either the Democratic incumbent or the Democratic candidate for the open seat [while presidential races sometimes affect Senate races, it’s never been seriously argued that the reverse is true].

All jollity aside, Morris’ exercise in unlimited spin should serve as a cautionary tale of the kind of house-of-cards it is possible to build if one is determined to ignore every bit of contrary evidence militating against Total Victory for My Team. I’m sure he could make a superficially impressive case for an impending Obama landslide if he hadn’t cast his financial lot with the GOP. But Republicans aren’t the only ones facing this temptation. Just ask anyone who prematurely celebrated John Kerry’s victory in 2004.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.