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(CONNECTICUT) — After watching the first presidential debate last week, I thought President Barack Obama had a very bad night, Republican Mitt Romney had a very good night, neither lived up to expectations (high and low, respectively), and the whole thing amounted to a draw. The challenger must argue that the incumbent is no longer worthy of an electoral mandate. Romney didn’t do that. Yes, his poll numbers have risen since last Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean he convincingly made his case. As I later wrote, a tie for an incumbent is a win.
This would appear to put me at odds with everything you have read since last week. The consensus now seems to be that Obama flamed out in the worst meltdown in the history of presidential debates. A total and epic fail. Romney on the other hand sold himself to the American people like he never had before with equal and hearty dollops of wit, smarts, sympathy and verve. A total and epic master.
Major polls conducted right after the debate showed a sharp rise for Romney, but the latest by the Pew Research Center shows the nominee ahead of the president by four points, and otherwise wiping out Obama’s month-long lead — even among war-weary women. This poll evoked the lamentations of liberals across the world. Toby Harnden, of the Daily Mail, put the blame squarely on the president: He ignored his staff, didn’t prepare, disdained his opponent and deluded himself into thinking he’d won. Andrew Sullivan, Obama’s conservative admirer, stamped him feet in disbelief in a post titled “Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away“:
… I’ve never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week – throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does. How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement? And after Romney’s convincing Etch-A-Sketch, convincing because Obama was incapable of exposing it, Romney is now the centrist candidate, even as he is running to head up the most radical party in the modern era.
I share Sullivan’s frustration, though not his fatalism, and feel the philippics of my progressive brethren (I also wish the president were more engaging, more convivial, more combative, more lethal and more of everything we know he’s capable of being), but I think the commentariat — the left generally and MSNBC particularly — is being self-destructive, too hard Obama and a little disingenuous.
We in the media don’t like to think that we influence public opinion more than we reflect it, but we occasionally do, and the past week has been a case in point. Indeed, the commentariat probably changed the course of a presidential election. Most people thought the debate was more or less tied during the debate, according to one poll. But afterward polls showed those who thought Romney won surged past 80 percent. There’s a good reason for this — something more important than Obama’s prune-face frowning and unwillingness to look Romney in the eye.
First, it’s important to remember that the conservative press would have crowed even if Romney had dropped his pants in front of 70 million viewers. Meanwhile, the liberals press, especially Ed Schultz and Chris Matthews on MSNBC, cried and cried that Obama wasn’t more — whatever. It doesn’t matter. Once they started bewailing Obama’s mediocrity, they legitimized the growing view that Romney won.
Second, the storyline in the run up to the debate — that Obama enjoyed a sizable lead over Romney — had to change. The debate was Romney’s chance to mount a comeback and the press was poised to run with that story. This isn’t because the mainstream media is ideologically biased. It’s because the press is dogmatically opposed to a static storyline. We in the media cannot stand a story that doesn’t change over time — like “Obama’s winning,” which lingered for weeks — and we are metabolically predisposed to favoring a horse race, not a blow out.
But don’t take my word for it. Consider this from Politico’s Alex Burns, who wrote on Twitter just after the debate ended:
“Folks obsessed with crying media bias should take a good look at debate coverage. Press loves a dogfight more than a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g.”
So this confluence of forces, as well as Romney’s unexpected touches of warmth and Obama’s unexpected ebbs of oscitancy, has meant that every day has seen less talk about what happened and more talk about what we remember to have happened. And the more the media talked about what it remembered to have happened, the more convinced it was that Obama bombed. And the wider this consensus became, the more polls reflected that consensus, and the more they did, the more the media was convinced it wasn’t influencing public opinion as much as dutifully and impartially reflecting it.
As I said, I thought it was a tie, and a tie is a win for an incumbent. But that view has no chance against the closed-circuit feedback loop that has raged among liberals for the past week. If it wasn’t mass hysteria, it was pretty close, and the more hysterical Dems were, the more hysterical they became. The president is only now starting to regain his posture and mitigate the madness among supporters. But this overreaction has clearly shifted the race. Maybe for good.
Two days after the debate, a news story broke that in a different universe would have been a game-changer. The unemployment rate dropped below 8 percent for the first time since no one remembers when. Given the length, depth and pain of the Great Recession, this should have been the dominating story during the week following the debate, but it wasn’t. The media was too myopic, Democrats were too delirious and Republicans were too giddy with delight to notice that a 7.8 percent jobless rate blows a hole in Romney’s case against the president.
Aside from a few tangents here and there, Romney’s campaign has been unrelentingly focused on the economy and how the president’s policies have made conditions worse. The first debate moreover was dedicated almost entirely to economic issues. But instead of the obvious question being asked — how Romney can credibly claim that the president’s policies are making conditions worse when conditions are clearly getting better — we heard about every single poll that emerged over the course of seven brutal days and the reason for this is this tendency of the press to favor a race in which anything can happen.
But as Nate Silver reminds us, this election may not be as unpredictable as the press would like it to be. If there’s one feature the polling data has exhibited, Silver writes, it’s constancy. For most of the past year, the president has held a slight lead over the challenger. Only recently have their numbers diverged. That Romney’s numbers are rising while Obama’s are falling says more about these long-term patterns than it does about the short-term. And, Silver says, even in this new post-debate world we live in, the national polls show Romney gaining in the popular vote, but state polls show Obama holding steady in the Electoral College, which is another way of saying that things are the same as they ever were.
And Romney’s rise, though significant, may not be enough to overcome structural hurdles. As Amy Walter put it, what’s important “is focusing less on the minute by minute movements and more on the fundamentals. And, at this point, the fundamentals favor Obama.” Voters are feeling better about the economy, she writes. Economic confidence is up. So is trust in the government. Voters may be frustrated with Obama but not yet trusting of Romney. And, again, Obama has the advantage of more electoral votes. “If Romney loses Ohio and Wisconsin, he would have no choice but to win almost every single other battleground state to win,” she says. Moreover, Romney’s still not that likeable. He’s more likable now than he ever was before, but the president’s approval rating has been around 50 percent. And Team Obama has run more ads for less money than Team Romney.
Just as steady as the polling data is the history of incumbents who suck at the first debate. Reagan laid an egg. So did George W. Bush. Sitting presidents are out of practice and they care little about sharing the spotlight. In the case of Obama, he holds his challenger, not insignificantly, in disdain, according to the New York Times. And American voters have a history of giving challengers the benefit of the doubt. Says Silver: “Challengers also generally profit from the first debate: in 8 of the 10 election cycles since 1976, the polls moved against the incumbent, and a net gain of two or three percentage points for the challenger is a reasonably typical figure.”
And remember that Romney’s performance was good but it wasn’t that good. According to a Google survey during the debate, nearly 39 percent thought Obama was winning while 35 percent thought Romney was winning. Twenty-five percent thought it was even. Romney had to perform well. It was a do-or-die moment. That won’t be the case next time when Obama will be much better prepared.
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