The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When my esteemed friend Mike Tomasky writes, “Today may be the most important single day of the campaign,” it gets my attention. It does so particularly when he seems to be hitting the same note of alarm over post-debate spin as two other esteemed friends, Jonathan Chait and Alec MacGillis.

All three of these acute analysts are concerned that the aggressive spin of the Romney campaign that Mitt “won” the debate last night because he “met his objectives” or “reinforced his message” or “won the debate season” or whatever, and its acceptance by much of the MSM, can become what Chait calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and lift him to the presidency.

MacGillis offers a brilliant analysis of how “the liberal media” wanted the “story” of a “Romney comeback,” and are sticking to it now with great tenacity.

And Tomasky makes the obvious connection between conservative manipulation and media complicity:

[Conservatives are] constructing an opposite reality. This is at the heart of everything going on right now, I think. It’s what they can do that liberals can’t really do. They’ve always done it. “Romney is going to win” in 2012 isn’t so different from “We’ll be hailed as liberators” in 2003. They say something and try to make it so, and the media go for it time and time again.

All true, and yes, it is maddening. But does it actually matter right now?

As a deep skeptic about the importance of “momentum” in sports or in politics, I keep looking for evidence that the belief a candidate is ahead will add to his or her vote. Yes, obviously, a small but significant number of voters may need to think their candidate has a realistic chance to win in order to find the motivation to vote. But do any pick a president based on who they perceive as being ahead in a close race? Nobody but Dick Morris has been predicting a Romney landslide. But nonetheless, a remarkable number of conservative gabbers and a growing number of liberals seem to think media horse-race perceptions are the ball game.

Maybe that’s so, but I wouldn’t be so sure about it. You can make the argument that an achingly close race in which Obama desperately needs a fantastic GOTV effort might be a “self-fulfillling prophecy” as well, which adds to the zeal and effectiveness of that effort. Yes, conservative “enthusiasm” has always depended on the perception that Mitt wasn’t a stone loser; one he crossed that threshold (one set by the polls rather than any perceived “moderation” or “Etch-a-Sketch Moment”), there was no doubt the GOP “base” would turn out impressively, given the hate frenzy they’ve been in towards Obama for four years now. Beyond that, though, it’s not clear all the spin matters–no matter how deeply annoying and dishonest it is for the MSM to buy it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.