One of the fundamental disagreements between political journalists and political scientists is that journalists believe very strongly that campaign occurrences determine the outcome of elections. You can see this most strikingly in the current vogue for declaring that one candidate or another has won a certain week as if months-long campaign seasons are chock full of consequential occurrences. In fact, however, the vast majority of people vote as blind partisans. And the bulk of swing voters are people who pay very little attention to politics. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult to see how day-to-day news cycle events could have a large impact on election outcomes:
Meanwhile, in practice election outcomes turn out to be fairly predictable based on macroeconomic factors. Thus, while the press is full of little stories about why Obama is now leading, Brendan Nyhan is probably right to say that we’re just watching the fundamentals unfold. The evidence shows that campaign polls really do bounce up and down, but then they land just about where they were expected to land. You can think of the campaign as something like the world-spirit working its way through the public consciousness. Campaign events remind partisan Democrats of why they’re partisan Democrats, and partisan Republicans of why they’re partisan Republicans. And they provide fickle swing voters with official rationales for voting one way or another. So in 2004, folks who felt like sticking with Bush eventually all learned to say that the reason for this was that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. This year, weak (and weakening) economy has a magical way of dissolving doubts about Obama’s lack of experience while strong growth would almost certainly have heightened them.
Brendan quotes Larry Bartels:
I was very struck when I learned — many of you probably have seen, after each recent election, immediately after the election, Newsweek comes out with a big cover package on why, fill in the blank, won the election. And in 2004, they actually came out with a book that included a lot of analysis of why it was that Bush won the election. But before the election, they actually sent out an advertisement that had two books side by side; one was why Bush won the election and the other was why Kerry won the election. And given the times of producing these things, they actually had to produce most of the package, explaining to the readers of Newsweek the following week why it was that Kerry won the election.
Now, I didn’t read that issue, but I’m pretty sure that if I had read that issue, the narrative of how it was that Kerry had won the election would have been about as convincing as the narrative of how it was that Bush won the election.
My mother worked in the pre-Photoshop version of Newsweek‘s art department so I saw as a kid their “Dukakis Wins!” complete with a banner teasing their account of how he did it and why the prognosticators were all wrong. As Bartels says, most of that account would have to have been written in advance.