Battleground Baloney

We knew this would happen sooner or later. And now, thanks to Howard Fineman, it’s happened sooner. It’s battleground state-ism run amok.

In a “Web Exclusive” for Newsweek that bears the sub-head “Why the threatened closure of an Ohio factory could imperil Bush’s re-election,” Fineman breathlessly reports that he “just got back from Ohio.” While in the Buckeye State, Fineman paid a visit to the Canton-based Timken steel company, which has announced its intention to close its Canton manufacturing plants.

Fineman writes:

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if the company follows through on the plan — which will cut 1,300 high-paying jobs and produce a nasty spin-off effect — it could cost George Bush the presidency.

Here’s why: as Timken goes, so goes Canton (and nearby Massillon). As they go, so goes surrounding Stark County, the bellwether county in the bellwether state. As Stark County goes (history tells us) so goes Ohio. Stark’s vote in presidential elections has always almost exactly mirrored the statewide totals. And no Republican was won the White House without Ohio.

Fineman’s argument for Timken’s centrality to the race rests on a basic error of logic: He mistakes correlation for causation in interpreting Stark County’s results.

Certainly, the county’s vote may, historically, closely correspond to the statewide totals. But if, this year, a particular event specific to Stark County (the closing of the Timken factories) means the county ends up favoring John Kerry, that doesn’t mean the rest of Ohio is any more or less likely to follow suit.

To be sure, there are plenty of ways that Fineman could have brought Timken into the story while saying something that actually makes sense. He could have suggested that the closing of the Timken plant is representative of a spate of lost manufacturing jobs across Ohio, which has put the state up for grabs this year. Fineman could perhaps even have made the case that, since Stark County is so evenly split politically, it’s likely to have a high number of undecided voters for whom outside factors like plant closings could be crucial in shaping voting decisions. So a plant that closes down in Stark County is more damaging for the president than one that closes down elsewhere in the state, because Stark County voters are more likely to be influenced by it.

But it’s clear that he wants to go further. He wants to say that the expected decision to close the Timken plants is, in itself, a useful indicator of statewide results. It isn’t.

There’s a larger point here that’s more important than Fineman’s faulty logic. We can’t help thinking that it’s the campaign press corps’ obsessive focus on “battleground states” that has led us here. That mindset encourages reporters to present every on-the-ground observation as if it were the Holy Grail that somehow holds the key to the election.

But the reality is that if Timken closed its plants tomorrow, like a butterfly flapping its wings in China, it wouldn’t tell Fineman or anyone else much more about who’s going to win in November.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.