Political Scientists Are Killing the Campaign ‘Narrative’

Over at the Atlantic, Robert Wright has made a case that the campaign worm is about to turn. Not necessarily the worm that determines who emerges victorious on Nov. 6 -- that worm is looking like it's in danger of commencing rigor mortis. Instead, Wright focuses on the "narrative" worm; the way the news media entertains us (and, more importantly, itself) when political life grows too staid and predictable.

He writes:

If there's one thing the media won't tolerate for long, it's an unchanging media narrative. So the current story of the presidential campaign -- Obama sits on a lead that is modest but increasingly comfortable, thanks to a hapless Romney and a hapless Romney campaign -- should be yielding any moment to something fresher.

The essential property of the new narrative is that it injects new drama into the race, which means it has to be in some sense pro-Romney. This can in turn mean finding previously unappreciated assets in Romney or his campaign, previously undetected vulnerabilities in the Obama campaign, etc. The big question is whether the new narrative then becomes self-fulfilling, altering the focus of coverage in a way that actually increases Romney's chances of a victory. And that depends on the narrative's exact ingredients.

Wright then produces a menu of Romney comeback narratives for reporters to seize upon, mercilessly flog and then abandon in turn for still fresher diversions.

Anyone who has witnessed a presidential campaign or two will find this premise familiar. As long as there are newspapers to sell, web traffic to juice and TV ratings to increase, we'll have incentives for an "October surprise" or a "game changer" or whatever cliché comes next.

But look around: This sacred tradition is increasingly imperiled. In fact, the media's capacity for creating self-serving, fanciful political narratives is more constrained today than ever. An army of spoilsports -- many with Ph.Ds in political science -- has established camp on the banks of the Web, from which it takes aim at whatever diaphanous journalistic concoctions float past.

Take John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington who runs the annoyingly excellent Monkey Cage blog (and who co-authored this for Bloomberg View). The guy is a total downer.

Every time some reporter starts to have a little narrative fun, Sides gets all political science-y on them. Here he is tsk-tsking Politico's Jonathan Martin for writing that, based on a reading of grim economic data, Barack Obama's re-election should be "close to a mathematical impossibility."

First, I wish Martin had at least quoted some political science or some forecasting model or something. Anything, really. Because otherwise the evidence for this assertion is terribly lacking.

Martin actually hedged his assertion, in part by attributing it to Republicans bewildered by Obama's campaign strength. But here is Monkey Cage contributor Andrew Gelman of Columbia analyzing an unhedged version of the pitch by Niall Ferguson. (If you don't want to click through, just trust me: It isn't pretty.)

To bring this home, here's Sides again stating that regardless of what you've heard or imagined, the economic fundamentals do not spell doom for Obama. If anything, they might give him a slight edge in the campaign.

Look, I'm basically on the side of the "narrative" guys. I enjoy making up half-baked theories and then sending them downstream and seeing what happens. But these Monkey Cage types are draining all the hijinx out of the game. This is war.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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