Political scientist John Sides challenged this glib version of the conventional wisdom in a provocative late December post for The New York Times’s FiveThirtyEight blog written in place of a vacationing Nate Silver. Based on national polling data from YouGov, Sides contends, “Views of Mr. Romney hardly moved in May or June, which is when the Obama advertising surge occurred.” Sides, who (surprise) is working on a campaign book with the scholar Lynn Vavreck, found a similar pattern in battleground state polling: “There are some bumps and wiggles in the battleground states, but nothing that suggests Obama’s advertising took a serious toll.”

While the sophistication of scholars like Sides (a major contributor to The Monkey Cage, a valuable campaign blog) enhanced 2012 coverage, reporters should be as skeptical about arguments rooted in political science as they are about the post-election assessments of campaign veterans.

And as presented in the FiveThirtyEight post, the YouGov polling data that undergirds Sides’s contention has its limitations. For example, there are no individual state surveys, just an aggregate of 11 battleground states. In theory, the early anti-Bain ads could have swayed voters in Ohio, but the effect is not visible when the data from other swing states (like Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia) is added in. The YouGov polling data also includes Pennsylvania among the battleground states, although no ads were broadcast there until the final Romney feint at the end of the campaign.

My point is that—despite the vast contributions to world literature that will inevitably flow from Campaign 2012—there is much that we still don’t know about why Obama beat Romney. Sure, the anecdotes in both the Politico ebook and the Kranish article about the bitter relationship between Stuart Stevens (Romney 2012) and Mike Murphy (Romney for governor, 2002) offer delectable political gossip. But as I continue my 2012 read-a-thon, I remain much more riveted about the question of whether the early anti-Romney ads were a bane or a curse.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.