“The more I kept checking with Republican sources who I really do trust, the more I began to wonder: Could those exit polls be right?” Torry says. He and his colleagues scrapped the first piece around 9:30 p.m. Their second analysis, which actually appeared in the paper, examined why the race was so tight.

Before that election, Newsweek went so far as to promote two different versions of a post-campaign book about how either Bush or Kerry won before the election had even happened—check out this amazing image:


A similar process of retrospective justification would have likely ensued among observers had Kerry’s reported lead held up.

Of course, it may actually be true that Obama won this election because of his superior ground game or devastating barrage of negative advertising, but convincing evidence does not yet exist to support either claim. Obama performed about as well as we would have expected given the political and economic fundamentals of the race. Until proven otherwise, little credence should be given to post-election narratives that are constructed after the fact to “explain” the outcome we have observed.

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.