Patterico's Pontifications


Zombie Journalism: Rerunning the 2004 campaign

Filed under: 2004 Election,2012 Election,Media Bias — Karl @ 1:35 pm

[Posted by Karl]

Given the number of stories I expect to see making these errors, I almost hate to single out the WaPo’s Chris Cillizza. But here he is, predicting that Pres. Obama will go even more negative in his reelect campaign — almost advising that he do so — based on Pres. Bush’s 2004 reelect campaign:

Why? Because Bush whose popularity was sliding amid rising questions about the war in Iraq — among other things — knew that there was no path to victory against Kerry by spending any substantial time touting his accomplishments during his first four years in office.

Partisans on both sides were already lined up either for or against Bush and no amount of positive (or negative) advertising would move them off of how they intended to vote. Undecided voters didn’t like Bush so positive ads amounted to a waste of time. The only way to win was to make Kerry even less palatable.

Obama is in a somewhat similar — albeit it slightly stronger — position that Bush found himself at this time in 2004. The struggling economy has dragged down the current incumbent’s numbers and two of his main legislative achievements — health care and the economic stimulus — are not popular with the American public. (They are popular with the Democratic base, however, which is why Obama is touting some of those accomplishments in web ads — a means of communication that helps gin up energy in the base.)

Mind you, Jay Cost has looked in depth at the 2004 campaign and found essentially the opposite result:

The election that year was a referendum on Bush: people who disapproved of him voted overwhelmingly for Kerry; people who approved of him voted overwhelmingly for Bush. In fact, the Bush approvers/Kerry voters were more numerous than the Bush disapprovers/Bush voters.

As Jay noted: “If anything, Kerry did a better job at peeling away voters from the “other” side than Bush did.”

Cillizza’s sloppy thinking is most evident in his final paragraph quoted above.  I doubt he missed the day in writing class about paragraph structure and how topic sentences are supposed to be supported by and flow from the topic sentence.  Here, we are told Obama is in a slightly stronger position than Bush, but the rest of the paragraph actually suggests why Obama is in a weak position. [My theory is that Cillizza believes this because Bush’s approval was trending downward in May 2004, while Obama’s has generally trended upward since Autumn 2011.  However, I would note Bush’s downward trend broke over the summer of 2004 — and it’s entirely possible the converse could happen here, based on the natural rhythms of a presidential election year and the state of the economy. The main point here is that Cillizza could not be bothered to support his assertion with data or argument.]

Cillizza spells out his bedrock premise near the end of his piece:

Remember: Campaigns run negative ads because they work.

However, political scientists like John Sides will tell you that we haven’t remotely arrived at a place where research suggests that negative ads “work.”  This is not to say that negative ads never work; it is merely to say that at best, Cillizza can only claim that campaigns run negative ads because they believe negative ads work.  Sides calls the idea that negative ads work a “zombie,” because it refuses to die, despite the general lack of data supporting it.

Conservatives will be inclined to attribute the sloppy thinking of such stories entirely to political bias by journalists who would prefer Obama’s reelection.  However, without excluding bias as a factor, the problem runs deeper than that.

The 2012 election will be mostly a referendum on the incumbent and the economy, as such elections almost always are.  Yet coverage of the campaign to date has overwhelmingly focused on the horse race, tactics, strategy, money and advertising, absolutely dwarfing coverage of policy, the candidates’ public records and even their personal issues.  The same was true of the 2008 general election coverage, despite a financial panic and two war theaters.  Indeed, two of the world’s easiest predictions are: (1) after the 2012 elections, journalists will hold conferences where they decry the fact that they disserved the public with too much horse race coverage; (2) they will do it again in 2016.

The establishment media’s enormous bias toward horse race coverage is fundamentally self-serving.  If campaign strategists and pollsters are the puppet-masters who determine election outcomes, then the reporters who relay their plans to the unwashed masses have status.  But if people think that the event of the moment may not matter all that much, fewer people read the Washington Post.  And even zombies gotta eat.


21 Responses to “Zombie Journalism: Rerunning the 2004 campaign”

  1. Ding!

    Karl (f07e38)

  2. How then is the RNC going to run positive adds against Obama? Show over and over again President Stolen Valor standing over OBL with an M4?
    Might work.

    Sanmon (3df60c)

  3. Romney needs to talk about the economy, and the economy and also the economy. Yes, he’ll be hitting a strong headwind of distraction, all the more reason he should keep talking about the economy. And when he finishes talking about the economy, he should bring up the economy.

    Alex (002494)

  4. The liberal outrage over learning about Obama’s white girlfriends should provide some crossover votes even though the race obsessed Democrats will try to deny their true colors.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  5. It is racist to even comment about that, daley

    JD (2585aa)

  6. “Campaigns run negative ads because they work” is just a cliche that lazy liberals use to explain why their side lost an election. Surely no thinking voter would have voted against my preferred candidate. They must have been swayed by those deceptive negative ads.

    JVW (a2594b)

  7. JD – The truth hurts. I condemn myself.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  8. Why run negative ads against Obama when there are so MANY negative ads you can run against Obama’s failures.

    Kevin M (bf8ad7)

  9. As for negative ads against Romney … Santorum, Gingrich ad Paul ran all of them, and they didn’t work, at least on right and centrist voters.

    Kevin M (bf8ad7)

  10. 9: romney’s negative ads against them did work though

    Alex (c73a8f)

  11. Ok, this was like when they said Huntsman was the candidate they feared the most,

    narciso (8d0f34)

  12. Also why model yourself after a campaign that didn’t ultimately win, if you’re going to lie, say you’re imitating Nixon who tried to clean up his
    predecessor’s war, and won a landslide.

    narciso (8d0f34)

  13. hmmm… jay cost or chris sleeza… tough choice.


    Colonel Haiku (6b154d)

  14. 9. I dunno, even Dole polled more than 60% after the competition dropped, Romney 58% in PA, 56% in DE.

    You single issue ‘tards are lucky Scratch won’t have any toes left by August.

    gary gulrud (d88477)

  15. I I I I I

    Barcky Haiku (7f84dc)

  16. Obama is in a somewhat similar — albeit it slightly stronger — position that Bush found himself at this time in 2004.
    Bush’s weakness was that every little hiccup in Iraq was magnified by the media as evidence of the impending Iraqi war defeat. Whereas, when the economy is now tanking, the media ignores it.

    I remember the 1981-1984 Reagan years and the news coverage of the economy was exactly the opposite. If Obama had the same spin they gave to Reagan, he would be under 35%. Or have aliens abducted all of the homeless and unemployed this time around?

    liontooth (c33c1e)

  17. True, Lesley Stahl has long complained that Reagan ‘got off too easily, in her memoir, Andrea Mitchell makes the same point, and apparently Chris Wallace
    back then agreed, whereas we know the press was unrelenting hostile to him, but that wasn’t enough,
    so they dialed it up to eleven, in subsequent Republican administrations, and were even more
    nauseatingly toadying toward the Democrats.

    narciso (8d0f34)

  18. I don’t think polls are going to be as useful this year as is implied by everyone. Nobody is mentioning the “Bradley effect”, which is far more powerful this year than it ever has been in US politics. People are very unwilling to tell pollsters, especially those that lean left, that they are not voting for Obama because they believe they will be accused of racism, which they will.

    The Walker recall is also going to be a bellwether vote on June 5. There we will see how effective union money and their “ground game” will be.

    Mike K (326cba)

  19. I remember talking politics with people during the Bush Admin what haven’t breathed a word about politics since Obama was elected. Mostly people I know through work.

    happyfeet (a55ba0)

  20. There is no Bradley effect, and even if here were it might apply more to secondary questions, like do you personally like him)

    What there is, is a long term trend of Democrats or people voting Democrat being more willing to answer surveys (from 1936 to about 1960, it was Democrats who were less likely to answer, since 1968 it is Republicans) plus an enthusiasm effect, which can be stronger in polling than the enthusiasm effect on actual voting.

    (I think you do get a sort of Bradley effect or maybe call it reverse Bradley effect on the question of amnesty for illegal aliens – fewer people will say they are for it, than the number of people who really are. To get this kind of effect, one side has to basically shut up the other side in an argument without actually convincing them, but there is never an argument that you must elect this or that person i a place where you normally expect two-party copmpetition. People are effected by what they think the interviewer wants to hear, though)

    Sammy Finkelman (845007)

  21. Comment by Kevin M — 5/2/2012 @ 1:32 pm

    As for negative ads against Romney … Santorum, Gingrich ad Paul ran all of them, and they didn’t work, at least on right and centrist voters.

    They didn’t run them – they couldn’t afford to, except in South Carolina, and they were also bad ads

    What did happen was that Romney ran negative ads against everyone, and he didn’t care what they said. Gingrich became a corrupt Washington insider who took money from Freddie Mac. Santorum became a non-conservative loyal to labor unions.

    Romney ran into trouble when he had two or more major opponents – it began to seem obvious.

    Sammy Finkelman (6ae430)

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