Political Analysis is Hard

In 2008, I blogged as a forceful advocate of Barack Obama’s candidacy during the primaries, and I retain a lot of the readership I built up over that campaign, which means that there are a lot of Clinton-bashing commenters in the threads of pretty much anything I write. I come at politics with a progressive but pragmatic point of view that is more naturally aligned with Sanders’ overall message than Clinton’s. But my assessment as a political analyst beginning in about 2014 was that Clinton was so popular with self-described progressives (she was then polling with, if I remember correctly, an 81% approval rate) that there was not enough room on her left for anyone to successfully challenge her from that direction. I was aware of the hunger for such a challenge. Seeing the #Occupy people in the streets was all the testimony I needed to convince me of that. But protestors can be deceiving, just as looking at the size of a political rally can give you a false conviction about the breadth of a political movement. Unless most progressives actually stopping approving of Clinton, she was going to be the nominee. And, with the president in her corner, there was a real limit on how much anti-Clinton growth would ever be possible in progressive circles.

So, my analysis was that Clinton would win. My audience didn’t want to hear that. They relentlessly accused me of being secretly in the bag for her, or of being a sell-out who was satisfied with the status quo, or of putting my fingers on the scale simply to discourage Sanders’ supporters.

How much more exciting is it to read that there’s a real race and that if Sanders can just win the next series of primaries, he’ll surely convince the superdelegates to abandon Hillary? What does it do to readership to tell them that the thing they’re tuning in to watch and read about and discuss is a nothing-burger?

Over the past year, I’ve felt a constant pull to succumb to this pressure. Sometimes, I wanted to get excited myself. Sometimes I just got weary of the criticism and didn’t feel like inviting more of it. And sometimes I worried that I was going to lose my readership if I kept telling them things they didn’t like and that the story they came to read about was no story at all.

In the end, I stuck to my guns and told people exactly what I thought because that’s basically my brand, and that’s what I want to do, regardless of the consequences. My reward is that I don’t have to apologize for being wrong as most of the political punditry class is currently doing in one form or another. Of course, their big missed call was related to Trump’s chances of winning the nomination. I don’t have to apologize for that mistake either, but I understand that audience reaction can exert a powerful set of incentives that can distort a political analyst’s good sense. Relatedly, so can concerns about circulation. And there’s always the temptation to submit to group-think.

I don’t know why so many analysts decided to say they would eat things (a plate of nails, their own column) if Trump won the nomination, but at least part of it was driven (at least at the later stages) by a desire not to tell their audiences that the story was a non-story. If only Ted Cruz can win in Indiana, then Trump might still be denied the nomination, and Cruz is looking good there!

Yeah, well, no.

That was just a failure of analysis that most people should have known better than to have sold their readers.

With Trump winning Indiana in what should have been totally predictable fashion, most pundits are saying what the evidence suggests they should, which is that Trump is a massive underdog.

But that story is not interesting. Audiences may not come back over and over again to read that the election is over before it really begins.

So, the media will be pushed and pushed by incentives small and large, subconscious and deliberate, to act like this election is going to be a barnburner.

It could be a barnburner, but they should wait to see some evidence for it before they start predicting that it will be.

Nancy touched this also, in her last piece when she cited David Roberts.

[T]he US political ecosystem — media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders, the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics — cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is obviously and uncontroversially the superior (if not sole acceptable) choice. The machine is simply not built to handle a race that’s over before it’s begun.

This touches on what I’ve been talking about, but it also goes deeper. I’ve been talking about reasons that analysts are driven to say and predict things against their better judgment. But there’s also a kind of presumption of at least some neutrality and objectivity in most bigfoot political reporting, whether it’s in the New York Times or the nightly network news. If you’re openly and unapologetically partisan, then that gives you permission to be brutal in your assessment of the other side, but that’s not what we expect from reporters or network news anchors. Quite aside from wanting a competitive race for ratings and revenue purposes, we have media platforms that are not designed to deal with a candidacy that is nakedly beyond the pale of civilized discourse or serious consideration. There’s a real sense in which they are supposed to avoid the appearance of bias, and Trump is going to put them in a vice where their imperative to seem neutral comes up against their imperative to get the story right.

Partisans on both sides have been complaining for years that the “neutral” reporters are failing to accomplish this balance. Conservatives think the reporting class has such a fundamentally liberal worldview that it permeates all their coverage even when it is unintended. This was the rationale for Fox News, for example. Liberals think that a desire to be even-handed leads these “neutral” reporters to resort, time and time again, to a form of both-siderism, where no matter how atrociously a Republican behaves, some equivalency must be sought from a Democrat.

These criticisms both have a lot of merit, but we’re dealing with something in a different class with Trump. Even most responsible Republicans agree that he shouldn’t get within a country mile of the nuclear codes. There’s wide bipartisan consensus that he suffers from a narcissism disorder, that he’s ill-informed and prone to believe in conspiracy theories, that he’s a bully, that he’s built his political success on xenophobia and racism, and that he’s a misogynist.

If the reporters actually focus on this consensus, that doesn’t allow them to promote a traditional presidential race. They can’t find equivalent faults in Hillary Clinton even though they’ll do their best. They can’t just report everything as a he said/she said/you decide dispute.

In truth, they can’t report on this campaign while being both objective and neutral. And they can’t report on it the way they are designed to report on national politics.

It’s a real problem for them.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.