More than anything, the experience of covering baseball taught me journalistic humility. I have tried to retain that humility in the political realm, and to be skeptical of certainties, whether they are drawn from the latest published polls, historical analogies, or the off-the-record whispers from top campaign strategists. But Issenberg’s article made me wonder if I am still over-confident about my grasp of modern politics, just because I remember Mario Cuomo’s keynote address at the 1984 Democratic Convention and I can rattle off the strategic problems with John Kerry’s 2004 get-out-the-vote efforts in Ohio.
Without having read The Victory Lab itself, I cannot judge whether Issenberg is overstating the paradigm-shifting implications of sophisticated algorithms that are the basis of political micro-targeting. Maybe the real campaign is not the frenetic travels of Obama and Mitt Romney that are visible to journalists, but rather a stream of laser-beam political messages directed at an undecided 39-year-old under-employed dry-wall contractor in Dayton, Ohio. Maybe politics is finally run by what pop sociologist Vance Packard called, a half-century ago, The Hidden Persuaders. Or maybe less has changed: Based on the vast expenditures for 30-second attack ads by both the presidential campaigns and their semi-affiliated super PACs, the surface rituals of political persuasion do seem to be eerily similar to those of the 1980s.
And even if much of what the press breathlessly covers in a presidential campaign ultimately has little to do with shaping the electoral outcome, those events do still matter. Romney’s appearance on Meet the Press this Sunday may not deliver a single vote along the I-4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, but it might well give us clues about how the GOP nominee would govern from the Oval Office. It may be folly to draw epic conclusions from the decibel level of enthusiasm at an Obama or Romney rally, but what a candidate says on stage is a campaign promise to be redeemed or quietly discarded next January.
Still, campaign reporters are not political strategists, even if a few like David Axelrod have made that transition. What the Issenberg article underscores is that we should not try to pretend without reporting—and should not presume omniscience even after reporting—that we know what tactics will swing Colorado, or airily theorize about how Paul Ryan’s presence on the GOP ticket affects the allegiances of older voters in Florida.
So, as I literally (to use Joe Biden’s favorite word) head for the airport, I leave Charlotte uncertain how the political hurly-burly of the last 10 days has played out with the voters. It all comes back to a sense of humility as I wait for the burst of post-convention polling. But that doesn’t prevent me from saying—just in case you missed it—that Obama gave a pedestrian acceptance speech.