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.