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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

‘Horse Race’ Reporting Substandard — As Well As Overvalued

As the Democratic Convention begins, it’s instructive to take a moment to evaluate the overall quality of campaign reporting thus far. Slate.com columnist Sasha Issenberg’s post “Why Campaign Reporters Are Behind the Curve” at NYT’s ‘Campaign Stops’ is a good place to begin. Issenberg acknowledges the oft-stated critique that too much MSM time and energy is being squandered on “horse race” analysis. But, worse, argues Issenberg, the horse race reportage is generally sub-standard. As Issenberg explains:

…The reality about horse-race journalism is far more embarrassing to the press and ought to be just as disappointing to the readers who consume our reporting. The truth is that we aren’t even that good at covering the horse race. If the 2012 campaign has been any indication, journalists remain unable to keep up with the machinations of modern campaigns, and things are likely only to get worse.
…Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes.
…Campaigns have borrowed techniques from the social sciences, including behavioral psychology and statistical modeling. They have access to private collections of data and from their analysis of it have been able to reach empirical, if tentative, conclusions about what works and what doesn’t.

Issenberg sees the decline in quality of horse-race reporting accelerating around the year 2000, when ” campaign analysts began to pull in reams of new data on individual voters,” including “new demographic data and lifestyle markers” such as “lists of people who purchased religious material or had gun licenses or had recently taken a cruise.” Issenberg continues:

…Few journalists had access to any of the campaigns’ data, or even much understanding of the statistical techniques they used. We found ourselves at the mercy of self-promoting consultants who described how they were changing politics by ignoring stodgy old demographics and instead pinpointing voters according to their lifestyles. We played along, guilelessly imputing new mythic powers to microtargeting. In many retellings, data analysis became the reason George W. Bush was re-elected….It was the combination of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of data points that offered value: algorithms could weigh previously imperceptible relationships among variables to predict political attitudes and behavior.

Yet, even today, says Issenberg,

Journalists tend to mistake the part of the campaign that is exposed to their view — the candidate’s travel and speeches, television ads, public pronouncements of spokesmen and surrogates — for the entirety of the enterprise. They treat elections almost exclusively as an epic strategic battle to win hearts and minds whose primary tools are image-making and storytelling.
But particularly in a polarized race like this one, where fewer than one-tenth of voters are moving between candidates, the most advanced thinking inside a campaign is just as likely to focus on fine-tuning statistical models to refine vote counts and improve techniques for efficiently identifying and mobilizing existing supporters.

Citing Romney’s “victory” in the Iowa caucuses (it was later revealed he actually lost to Santorum) as an example of distracted media analysis, Issenberg argues that “Mr. Romney had exploited the inefficiency at the core of contemporary campaign coverage: the press’s fascination with strategic calculations and gamesmanship well exceeds its ability to decode the tactics underneath.” Romney had “deployed statistical models to track Iowa supporters and current vote counts for his rivals. It amounted to a largely invisible 21st-century upgrade to the traditional infrastructure of offices, phone banks and staff that most journalists visualized.”
Here’s hoping the Obama campaign has an even stronger edge in advanced statistical analysis and the modernized campaign needed to make the most of it.

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