Factchecking the ‘gifts’ theory of politics

LAT, NYT break news on Mitt Romney's remarks—and also offer a skeptical look

The big electoral politics story of the day (well, ok, of late Wednesday) is the news that Mitt Romney, on a phone call with contributors to his campaign, attributed his loss to the Obama administration’s strategy of giving “gifts” to groups of voters. As Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times tells it:

“The Obama campaign was following the old playbook of giving a lot of stuff to groups that they hoped they could get to vote for them and be motivated to go out to the polls, specifically the African American community, the Hispanic community and young people,” Romney told hundreds of donors during a telephone town hall Wednesday. “In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups.”

Unfortunately for Romney, he didn’t know that Reston, or The New York Times’s Ashley Parker, were listening in. Also unfortunately, he has a habit of saying this sort of thing to donors when he thinks nobody else is in earshot.

News of Romney’s remarks has produced plenty of interesting responses. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, already running hard for the GOP nomination in 2016, opined at a press conference that Romney was “absolutely wrong,” and bloggers at National Review and Hot Air took note. Meanwhile, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ezra Klein argued that key groups in the Republican coalition wanted “stuff,” too, and Romney had promised it to them. And Matt Yglesias suggested that Republicans might consider the innovative “make people’s lives better” strategy themselves.

But the responses of the reporters listening in on Romney’s comments were pretty interesting, too. Reston and Parker didn’t just make news by bringing Romney’s remarks to a broader audience. To varying degrees, they also wrote in their stories that Romney’s explanation—and a similar statement made by his running mate Paul Ryan—was wrong, or at the least incomplete, as a matter of analysis.

From Reston’s article:

Romney’s frank analysis echoed his secretly taped comments at a May fundraiser, where he told a small group of donors that 47% of the electorate was unlikely to vote for him because they paid no income taxes and were dependent on government. It followed his running mate Paul D. Ryan’s assertion that Obama’s win stemmed from turnout among “urban” voters.

Both were at odds with the election results—Obama won several key states without large cities or minority populations. And he did so in part by asserting that it was Romney who was planning to disburse gifts—by virtue of a budget plan that included tax breaks heavily skewed toward the wealthy.

And later:

Romney’s analysis that voters had essentially been persuaded by financial benefit to vote for Obama pushed aside criticisms of his own campaign. Analysts who have studied the vote, for example, have given credit to Obama’s massive get-out-the-vote effort, which dwarfed its Republican counterpart.

Polls and interviews also suggested that, in part, those voters were driven to Obama by the Republican’s conservative positions on issues like immigration, abortion and the role of government. Among African American voters, pride in the nation’s first black president was also a key element.

Parker was less emphatic, but made a similar point:

Mr. Romney’s comments in the 20-minute conference call came after his running mate, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, told WISC-TV in Madison on Monday that their loss was a result of Mr. Obama’s strength in “urban areas,” an analysis that did not account for Mr. Obama’s victories in more rural states like Iowa and New Hampshire or the decrease in the number of votes for the president relative to 2008 in critical urban counties in Ohio.

It’s important to note that some of the alternative factors that Reston in particular points to, like Obama’s superior organization—while real—may not have been the reason for Romney’s defeat either. As Brendan Nyhan has argued here at CJR, the outcome was pretty close to what fundamentals like the state of the economy would suggest.

That important caveat aside, it was good to see the coverage note Romney’s self-serving (if also insulting) spin for what it was. And it was also good to see both Reston and Parker hold Romney’s, and Ryan’s, accounts up against reality and show readers—right in the course of the main story, where the news was being reported—where they didn’t line up. As the campaign fades into history and looming legislative battles move to the fore, let’s hope we see more coverage that does the same.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , , ,