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THE 23 PERCENT REFUTATION! To Broder, it was the greatest campaign. To us, it was the dumbest: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2008

Enforcing collective memory: “Campaigns create our collective memory.” So says UCSD’s Samuel Popkin, quoted in this morning’s Post by high insider Robert Kaiser. Indeed. As we read this morning’s papers, we saw “collective memory”—campaign myth—floating all around.

We saw a memory being formed in this piece by the Post’s Gene Robinson. There may be an explanation for the highlighted statement—but it doesn’t appear in the piece:

ROBINSON (11/4/08): I can't think of a single moment, before this year, when I thought it was within the realm of remote possibility that a black man could be nominated for president by one of the major parties—let alone that he would go into Election Day with a better-than-even chance of winning.

Let me clarify: It's not that I would have calculated the odds of an African American being elected president and concluded that this was unlikely; it's that I wouldn't even have thought about such a thing.

Drama is heightened when pundits invent collective memories like this. But as we noted at the start of the year, insider pundits stood in line to urge Colin Powell to run in 1995 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/22/08). It may be that Robinson thought different back then—thought Powell could never succeed. His colleagues seemed to think different. But many are now inventing a memory in which this has been disappeared.

But then, your high insider pundit class mainly exists to craft novels. More than anything else, this is the odd mental trait we have chronicled down through the years here at THE DAILY HOWLER. (Endlessly, we’ve been amazed by this trait.) That said, another “collective memory” (media novel) is expressed at several points in Kaiser’s piece—a piece which explores the predictive models by which academics forecast elections.

Maybe White House campaigns don’t matter that much, Kaiser, a high insider, muses. Maybe the outcome is all in the stars! Kaiser’s report stars Alan Abramowitz, an Emory political science prof who has developed one of the models used to predict election results. And omigod! This model rocks! In truth, Kaiser plays the fool a tad as he pimps the Abramowitz model:

KAISER (11/4/08): [I]n late August, Alan Abramowitz, as Emory University political science professor, made his quadrennial prediction of the November result using a mathematical formula he has applied to every presidential general election since 1952: Obama 54.3, McCain 45.7. (Abramowitz's formula calculates the share of the vote to be won by the two major-party candidates only.) The final Post-ABC poll, released last evening, put Obama ahead of McCain by 53 to 44 percent.

Omigood! How great is that predictive model! Kaiser marvels at the way Abramowitz’s prediction matches the final Post-ABC poll. Of course, Kaiser hasn’t selected just any old poll; out of a welter of national polls, he has carefully picked the one which most closely matches the model! A more disciplined mind might have waited a day; as of tomorrow, Kaiser could compare Abramowitz’s prediction to the campaign’s actual outcome! But your press corps doesn’t function that way—especially at its high end.

How close will Abramowitz come to predicting the outcome? Like Kaiser, we have no idea. But collective memory drenched Kaiser’s piece when he explained the one sad time when Abramowitz failed to deliver. Kaiser offers a time-honored explanation for the one time this model failed:

KAISER: Now here's the eerie part: Abramowitz's formula appears to really work. Only the 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore flummoxed Abramowitz, who predicted that Gore would win. Of course, Gore did win the most votes in 2000, but he got less of the major-party popular vote than Abramowitz predicted. Still his prediction (calculated months before the election) was more accurate than nearly all the final national polls published on the eve of the voting.

"The effects of campaigns are usually at the margins," Abramowitz says. "In a really close election they can make a difference if one campaign is much better than the other." The Bush campaign was a lot better than the Gore campaign in 2000, and that may have mattered. Typically, Abramowitz observes, the two campaigns "cancel each other out.”

There we see a treasured memory—a narrative on which the press corps insists. Candidate Gore ran a lousy campaign! That explains why he didn’t win! A bit later on, Kaiser cites another giant who is singing the same sweet refrain:

KAISER: UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck, in her forthcoming book "The Message Matters," elaborates on Abramowitz's observation that campaigns have an impact "at the margins." She cites three cases in which a candidate should and could have won if he had conducted a better campaign: Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Al Gore in 2000. All three were the beneficiaries of strong economies, and all three failed to exploit that fact effectively in their campaigns and lost the prize of a third term for their parties.

Gore lost because of his lousy campaign! By way of contrast, Kevin Drum acknowledged, just last week, that “everyone” has now been “convinced” that Gore got waylaid by the press corps. But people like Kaiser don’t seem real “convinced;” they’re still churning the Same Explanation for the fact that Bush ended up in the White House. Their story directs you away from what Kevin has said, thus serving the press corps’ interests.

Josh Marshall was pimping this tale in 2002. Robert Kaiser still pimps it today.

For the record, let’s clean up a few minor details. On August 30, 2000, Abramowitz predicted that Gore would win 53.2 percent of the two-party vote. Two months later, Gore won 50.3 percent. (Gore got 50,999,897 votes, Bush 50,456,002.) As such, the predictive model overstated Gore’s performance by about three points. The question, then: Who lost those three points? Today, Kaiser says that Gore himself lost the three points because he ran a lousy campaign. He then feeds you Vavreck’s view (if not her actual words); she has apparently said the same thing. He doesn’t consider a different possibility; he doesn’t consider the possibility that those three points disappeared because his colleagues ran a vicious, twenty-month war against Gore. Did Gore lose those three points to the press? Kaiser would die before asking.

Kevin says everyone is now convinced. Funny—Kaiser seems to have missed the memo. He continues to do what his cohort does best. He continue to pimp their collective memory (their novel). In this novel, his colleagues did no wrong. It was Gore who screwed up—big-time.

As noted, Josh Marshall was feeding you this tale back in 2002, when he was still considering a career as a mainstream journalist. Kaiser still peddles this story today. In this piece, a high insider just keeps urging his cohort’s “collective memory” upon you. And oh yes! It’s too late now to tell the truth, Kevin has advised. (With apologies for the snark.)

One last point on Abramowitz and the spread of this potent Group Memory:

In 2006, Eric Boehlert published Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush. At one point, he had the temerity to note the way the press corps pimped Candidate Bush—and savaged Candidate Gore—during Campaign 2000. Todd Gitlin reviewed the book in The American Prospect. He included a few gruesome stats:

GITLIN (7/06): However skewed you think the media have been, it may at times be worse than you think. Boehlert tells us that, during the entire 2000 campaign, ABC's evening news show never—not once—referred to Bush's carefree National Guard record. Outside The Boston Globe—whose Walter Robinson did yeoman work on discrepancies, omissions, and plain distortions in Bush's accounts—the total number of media accounts that mentioned both his absenteeism and Texas pol's Ben Barnes' acknowledgment that he tried to sneak young Bush into the Guard: two. The number of accounts of the phony charge that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet: more than 4,800.

Numbers like that are a bit hard to interpret. But omigod! In the next month’s issue, a letter from Abramowitz made perhaps the most bizarre claim ever put into print. We can’t begin to imagine why the Prospect would ever have printed such absolute nonsense. But at any rate, Abramowitz’s letter ran beneath an unfortunate headline: “Gitlin's claim about the Gore Internet story is greatly exaggerated:”

ABRAMOWITZ (8/14/06): In his review of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush, Todd Gitlin writes that the phony accusation that Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet appeared in the media more than 4,800 times during the 2000 presidential campaign. Gitlin does not explain how this number was calculated, nor does he indicate the exact time period covered or which media were included. However, a Lexis-Nexis search reveals only 19 mentions of the “Gore-invented-the-Internet” charge in major American newspapers between January 1, 2000, and Election Day. Moreover, the point of several of these articles was that Gore had never made such a claim but that he had been a strong supporter of the development of the Internet. Other articles in which the statement appeared were quoting a joke used by George Bush on the campaign trail. Gitlin's (and Boehlert's) claim that the media frequently and uncritically reported this accusation, like the accusation itself, appears to be greatly exaggerated.

We have no idea why the Prospect would have published such an utterly ludicrous claim. Just nineteen mentions in those ten months? Abramowitz must have been typing from Mars—from an underground bunker there. The Prospect posted Gitlin’s reply. Sadly, Gitlin’s presentation was just as inept as the good professor’s:

GITLIN: Todd Gitlin responds: My source for the “more-than-4,800” claim was Boehlert's Lapdogs (p. 160). Maybe I should have checked earlier. Strangely, when I did so just now, Lexis-Nexis turned up neither 4,800-plus entries, nor the 19 that Professor Abramowitz found, but 445. But lest we succumb to the fog of dueling Nexises, I submit that we recall Karl Rove's principle: When you're explaining, you're losing. Insofar as newspapers were saying that Gore was defending himself against a deceitful charge, he sounded, to some undecided population of voters, like an evasive braggart. That was bad enough.

In hapless fashion, neither Abramowitz nor Gitlin described the search terms used in their searches. Almost surely, the pair were comparing apples to hippopotamuses; almost surely, they had searched on different terms. But Abramowitz’s claim was simply insane; it never should have gone into print. Just this morning, we searched the Washington Post, all by its lonesome, for the ten-month period in question, using a very narrow search term: “Gore AND invented the Internet.” That very narrow search produced seventeen hits in the Post alone! Many other references to this phony claim about Gore were missed by this narrow search term. (For the record, Gore was pounded by this claim for twenty months, not ten. The bogus claim was firmly in place in March 1999.)

Why did the Prospect publish such a nonsensical claim? We don’t have the slightest idea. But a “collective memory” was reinforced in the professor’s ludicrous letter. And it’s important to say this again: Gitlin’s response didn’t help matters much either.

Where did Abramowitz get that crazy statistic? We don’t have the slightest idea. But in this way, a hapless, hackworthy pseudo-elite crams its “memories” into your heads. Kaiser repeats their Official Story today—the story that is so self-serving, helpfully directing you away from the press corps’ own misconduct.

Did Al Gore run a lousy campaign? Or did the press corps massacre Gore? Everyone’s convinced of the latter, Drum says. But it’s too late to tell the truth now.

Sadly, of course, it isn’t too late for Kaiser to cram your head full of “memories.” Collective memory was all around us in this morning’s Post.

Real knowledge is thus wiped away: Then there’s Bob Herbert, forgetting helpfully in this morning’s Times:

HERBERT (11/4/08): [I]f your house is on fire and your family is still inside, that’s an example of the fierce urgency of now.

Something like that is the case in the United States right now as Americans go to the polls in what is probably the most important presidential election since World War II. A mind-boggling series of crises is threatening not just the short-term future but the very viability of the nation.

According to Herbert, today’s contest “is probably the most important presidential election since World War II.” Sorry, Bob—that election was already held. As the rest of your column helps explain, that election was held eight years ago—and you clowned your way through it. Helpfully, Herbert forgets all that past conduct today.

“Collective memory” is thus established. Real knowledge is thus wiped away.

THE 23 PERCENT REFUTATION: In one of his oddest pieces ever, David Broder enthused about the current election in Sunday’s “Outlook” section. He finished this piece in the following way, gushing about all the drama:

BRODER (11/2/08): For decades, I have said that the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign was the best I ever saw. But most of the drama in that contest came after Labor Day. This time, the excitement was generously distributed over a whole year, with moments of genuine humor from Huckabee, a torrent of uninhibited conversation from McCain and Biden, and rare eloquence from Obama and both Clintons. The country faces a choice between two men who both promise the nation a more principled, less partisan leadership.

And meanwhile, what a show it has been—the best campaign I've ever covered.

This was “the best campaign” Broder has ever covered, the Pundit Dean exclaimed in this piece. And what were the terms of the Pundit Dean’s search? He praised the excitement, the drama—the show. In the course of all that gushing, he showed us what drives their world.

Eight years ago, Margaret Carlson revealed the same “Versailles values” when she blurted and blabbed to Imus. Late in the game in Campaign 2000, she explained why her cohort was trashing Gore—and giving Bush such a large pass. We’ve often cited this remarkable exchange (see THE DAILY HOWLER 8/23/02, for example). It truly defines their world:

CARLSON (10/10/00): Gore’s fabrications may be inconsequential—I mean, they’re about his life. Bush’s fabrications are about our life, and what he’s going to do. Bush’s should matter more but they don’t, because Gore’s we can disprove right here and now…You can actually disprove some of what Bush is saying if you really get in the weeds and get out your calculator or you look at his record in Texas. But it’s really easy, and it’s fun, to disprove Gore.

[...]

I actually happen to know people who need government and so they would care more about the programs, and less about the things we kind of make fun of…But as sport, and as our enterprise, Gore coming up with another whopper is greatly entertaining to us. And we can disprove it in a way we can’t disprove these other things.

As Carlson acknowledged, Gore had made minor factual errors; Bush was making major misstatements about major policy matters. Bush’s misstatements were more consequential, she said. Why then were they savaging Gore—and giving his opponent a pass? “As sport,” Gore’s misstatements were “greatly entertaining.” It was “fun” trashing Gore, Carlson said.

Broder expressed the same Versailles values as he praised the current campaign. For ourselves, we were surprised by his judgment. Just how great was this White House campaign? We thought of a sad, grotesque report which had emerged a few days earlier. Richard Dunham had done the reporting in the Houston Chronicle:

DUNHAM (10/30/08): A University of Texas poll to be released today shows Republican presidential candidate John McCain and GOP Sen. John Cornyn leading by comfortable margins in Texas, as expected. But the statewide survey of 550 registered voters has one very surprising finding: 23 percent of Texans are convinced that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is a Muslim.

After two years of Broder’s exciting campaign, 23 percent of Texans were dragging this unvarnished bullsh*t around. (Give or take sampling error.)

There’s nothing surprising about that, of course. The American people are always misinformed—and it isn’t really the press corps’ “fault.” But the press corps almost always chooses to look away—to avert its gaze from the mayhem. As best we can tell from a Nexis search, neither the Post nor the New York Times ever mentioned that figure from Texas. Meanwhile, this greatest campaign came down to the wire with people shouting about “Communism.” You see, Obama wanted a top tax rate of 39 percent—versus McCain’s 35.

Thirty-five? That was “country first!”

In our view, it would be hard to imagine a dumber campaign than the one we’re now concluding. But the Village runs on excitement and drama—on fun, entertainment. On sport.