Zombie Journalism: Rerunning the 2004 campaign
[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.