The most potent spin: lies campaigns tell themselves

Plus: is a split between the popular vote and Electoral College really so rare?

DENVER — The dirty secret of campaign journalism for the next 11 days is that there is no way for conscientious reporters to give readers what they crave most of all—advance knowledge of who is going to win the election. We have reached the point in the campaign when the polls are too close and the dictates of spin too intense for anyone but a fool (or a TV pundit) to offer anything more than tentative guesses about who is going to be inaugurated on January 20.

When I was younger—and cockier about divining the future—I was convinced that if you had the right sources within a campaign, you could figure out the gist of their internal polling by their off-the-record mood and body language. So I was privy to the buoyant mood at the upper levels of the John Kerry campaign during the final heady week of the 2004 campaign. Sometimes in politics, though, the most potent spin comes from the lies that campaign strategists tell themselves as they interpret ambiguous information.

That is why I remain skeptical about the widespread claims that the Mitt Romney insiders believe that they are winning—and that the Republican nominee, in effect, won the third debate by not losing it. (Brendan Nyhan has also written on this topic today for CJR).

Maybe the king-of-the-world (or more accurately, CEO-of-the-world) mood in the Romney camp is for real. Maybe the hyper-rational business strategist from Bain Capital has assembled a campaign brain trust filled with cock-eyed optimists. Or, most likely, most of this is disinformation to cloud the minds of the press, bandwagon voters, and the Barack Obama campaign.

In Politico’s “Playbook” Friday morning, Mike Allen ran a lengthy section of dueling state-by-state analyses from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina and Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director. While a few of the comments were intriguing, most of the on-the-record commentary was obvious he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he hype, such as Beeson claiming, “Virginia is a lot like Florida: It’s starting to head in the right direction.”

The rise of absentee and early voting has opened another front in the campaign spin war, one where journalists may be at a particular disadvantage. I suspect it is hard for many reporters (especially those from the East Coast, where Election Day still matters) to mentally adjust to the way that early voting has changed the rhythms of politics in the rest of the country.

Enough with the coy generalizations: I know it is the case with me. Here in Colorado, according to a new NBC News/WSJ/Marist Poll, 78 percent of all voters plan to vote before Election Day. As a result, I am tempted to spend a chilly afternoon conducting an impromptu exit poll in front of a mailbox.

Still, we have to try. And for all the glib talk of Mitt having the Big Mo, some of the best reporters on the campaign trail have filed pieces this week emphasizing the Obama campaign’s seeming edge in on-the-ground organization and vote-harvesting techniques. Two examples that are worth reading: Ryan Lizza (behind a paywall) in The New Yorker and Molly Ball in The Atlantic online. Their stories mesh with my own reporting from Ohio and Iowa.

Even here, a cautionary note is in order. It is possible to be gulled by the beehive of activity in an Obama office and to be overly impressed by the sheer number of storefronts (67 in Iowa alone) rented by the president’s campaign. This highly visible Obama presence may prove to be decisive in a close election. But I also recognize a certain instinctive reporter bias in favor of emphasizing anything that you can see, experience, and interview.

With organization, as with so much else during these final 11 days, we in the press are gambling that our theories about what creates a winning campaign are correct. Post-election, I hope we all spend a few weeks assessing which elements of campaign coverage were over-hyped (my tentative nominee: TV ads by super PACs), which were under-reported (maybe: the role of religion, from Romney’s Mormonism to the activities of megachurches) and which were (Goldilocks alert) just right.


We have also reached the what-if phase of the presidential campaign, as reporters spin out unlikely scenarios from a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College to Mitt Romney winning the popular vote but losing the election. Most of this is harmless fun and far less injurious to your mental health than earlier fantasies of a second ballot at a national convention.

The most plausible of these concoctions is Romney winning the popular vote but flunking out of the Electoral College. Almost everyone who writes about campaigns operates on the assumption that there is something historically aberrant about one candidate winning the most votes while not being awarded the keys to the Oval Office. This sense of alarm is understandable, given that the last victory by a minority-vote president was in the hanging-chad, constitutional-crisis election of 2000.

But an intriguing footnote in Partisan Balance, a 2011 book by Yale University political scientist David Mayhew, demonstrates how easy it is to mis-remember history. For in truth, any reasonable interpretation suggests that Richard Nixon—not John Kennedy—won the national popular vote in 1960. This is not a conspiracy theory about how Chicago Mayor Richard Daley stole the election for JFK. Instead, Mayhew highlights an error in how the correctly tabulated returns from Alabama have been recorded for posterity.

In 1960, Kennedy’s name was not on the Alabama ballot. Instead, 11 electors (some segregationist and some loyal to the national Democratic Party) were elected statewide on the Democratic line. The six segregationist electors (who went on to vote for Virginia Senator Harry Byrd) rolled up more votes than the five Kennedy loyalists.

All the electoral charts on the 1960 election award the entire Democratic vote in Alabama to Kennedy. But if you follow logic and reduce JFK’s proportion of the Alabama Democratic ballots to five-elevenths, he loses 175,000 votes. That single recalculation is large enough to wipe out Kennedy’s 118,000-vote national margin and very belatedly hand Nixon the popular vote lead.

Why is this historical recalibration relevant to contemporary campaign reporters?

Because we are all prone to grand pronouncements about the natural shape of American politics. But, as the 1960 election illustrates, some of the raw material that supports this glib theorizing should come with asterisks and caveats. Since there are so few presidential elections, even just one error in interpreting the results can alter perceptions.

(By the way, I wonder how many political and economic model builders include Kennedy’s purported popular vote victory in their database. Nate Silver gets at least partial credit for noting in a recent New York Times column that the 1960 election was so close that its “results could have been altered by essentially random factors.”)

If Romney does indeed win the popular vote but lose the White House, I hope that the election-night commentary notes this is the third time that we have had such an upside-down result in just 52 years. When something occurs that often, it may be weird, it may be undemocratic, but it is hard to call it aberrant.

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