Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A Perfect Recipe For Spin

Over at Post Partisan, I argue that Wisconsin -- assuming the state senate result holds up and Democrats have gained a majority there -- is a mixed result.

That's not what you're going to get from the coverage, however, which played it as a sweeping Republican landslide.

So how did it happen?

First, the press has a major bias in favor of covering executive over legislative elections.

Second, the state senate result happened really late at night (and, again, isn't quite definite even now and may not be for some time), while the gubernatorial race was called during prime time.

Third, I'm fairly sure that the way the exit polls and the count interacted helped. Suppose that it worked the opposite way...suppose the exit polls had been accurate, showing Scott Walker with a solid lead, but not quite enough to call it. The cable networks would have basically had a dud story to begin with: Walker expected to win, Walker probably will win. Then, suppose that the voters were counted in the Democratic precincts first, so that Democrat Tom Barrett held a narrow lead for most of the night, with Walker moving ahead late, and no network call until after midnight eastern time. The headline still would have been a Walker win, but my guess is it would have been perceived as very close. Instead, after an initial exit poll call that teased everyone that it would be a tight race, the count for most of the night had Walker up by about 20 points, leading pundits to start interpreting a major landslide that, it turned out, never happened. Had the same votes come in a different sequence, we might have been hearing all night about how Walker was badly harmed by his actions in office, even though he was likely to survive.

The funny thing is that all those biases and more were working the other way in a big Republican win yesterday in CA 31. In that one, Democrats failed to coordinate on a candidate, and therefore lost a chance at a very competitive House seat -- both candidates on the November ballot will be Republicans. In that, Republicans didn't get a story because the count was very slow (and on the west coast to begin with), and because the whole top-two ballot thing is confusing, and again because the press underplays legislative elections.

I'm not blaming the press for erring in most of this -- I'd like more focus on Congressional elections, but I don't expect them to wait until all the votes are in before they start pontificating on the meaning of things. And it's not as if the initial spin usually makes any difference, anyway (see the PP piece for how spin might be important in this one, though). Bottom line, however, is that there are real and important biases in how the press reports elections, and quite a few of them showed up in last night's coverage.


  1. Maybe you wrote about this, but the way vote counts unfolded in some of Romney's close primary wins also controlled the narrative - talking heads spent hours envisioning Santorum victory.

  2. CA-31: Cue the Will Rogers quote.......

  3. Some of the narrative might have changed based on the order of events--you make some fine points in that regard. But c'mon. There's no way a 7-point victory and a margin better than the one he won with was going to lead the conclusion that he was "seriously harmed," no matter what order things happened in.

    Also, some of the narrative of this being a thumping (and though it's not a "sweeping Republican landslide", it's a pretty thorough win) comes from the last few rounds of Democratic internals, which all conveniently had the race near-knotted, or with Barrett down just a couple of points. The disparity between these goofily predictable polls and the actual result had as much to do with the Walker-wins-big narrative as any of the other factors.

  4. Calling a debatable pickup in the state senate a mixed result seems to smack of spin as well. First, as you note, the seat is far from a certainty. Even if it were, there is every reason to believe the pickup delivers a temporary effect that would be erased again in November just in time for the state senate to resume work.

    At best, the pickup of the seat is a hollow symbolic victory that misses the resounding message from the election. Voters are tired of the public unions holding them hostage through the electoral process. FDR's objection to public unions should be well noted here. The only voters inclined to support Barrett last night were those who believed the recall should be used for any purpose. A clear majority in Wisconsin were tired of the unions using that process to upend the will of the people. It seems that roughly a third of union members enjoy having the choice whether unions represent them against the people they serve as well.

    Democrats and union leaders (redundancy noted) would be ill-advised in declaring the temporary and ineffectual state senate win a nullification of the message sent last night. Look at the daily tracking polls that show Obama's fall to earth in the heady days of his presidency. There were sudden drops at two points early on that coincide with the Arlen Specter switch and then again with the seating of Al Franken. Obama would have been far better off had he learned to work without the fillibuster-proof senate voters viewed skeptically. All subsequent elections served to put a restraining order on power the people believed was grabbed from them. IMO, health care was doomed to be perceived as illegitimate no matter what the legislation contained. I never heard any of this mentioned by the press, the press was too busy protecting Obama from persecution from the Tea Party. Hello? Anyone home?

    There is no argument there are real biases in press coverage of elections. I didn't see anyone in the press view this election as a win for the people - they lamented instead a resounding win for Republicans. That is very very sad.

    1. 1. Your Palinesque schtick is extremely tiresome.

      2. Walker spent $23 for each vote he received, while Barrett spent only $3.47 per vote. Walker spent 88% of the money, but only received 53% of the vote. That doesn't sound to me like the voters are smitten with Walker. It sounds to me like some anti-union billionaires just bought a state.

    2. 1. Your Ed Schultz schtick is equally tiresome.
      2. How much money did Barack Obama have compared to John McCain? The money is a problem in politics no doubt. Obama could have stuck to his original promise of using Federal money, he didn't. Now anyone who fights fire with fire is somehow corrupt. Grow up.

    3. ...because being a shill for corporations and billionaires is the epitome of maturity.

    4. 1) The money numbers are absurdly misleading and a step outside the good old epistemic closure will show you plenty of breakdowns showing as much. There are scads of problems with the number, chief among them being that they don't count whatever the unions spent, and they don't count the shellacking Walker got during the recall signature drive, either. And frankly, a lot of the money was likely wasted, given how highly saturated and informed the electorate was. Sorry, but the idea that this election was purchased is an absolute fantasy. It's wrong conceptually, as well as factually.

      2) You didn't answer her argument. Obama outspent McCain substantially (and he did it by explicitly going back on his word about public financing, too). Did he buy the election? Or is it only buying the election when the other guy wins? No, don't answer, I already know.

  5. "There were sudden drops at two points early on that coincide with the Arlen Specter switch and then again with the seating of Al Franken."

    1. The people of Minnesota elected Franken and he was clearly entitled to be seated. Frankly, he should have been seated provisionally in January 2009, rather than having to wait until after July 4.

    2. According to, Obama's approval on June 30, the day Coleman's challenge was rejected by the MN Supreme Court, was 56.1% approval to 37% disapproval. On July 30, Obama's approval/disapproval was 53.4%/40%. A small decline, to be sure, but one within a +/-3% MOE and hardly the sudden drop you incorrectly remember.

  6. As for Specter, he announced his switch on April 28. Again according to, Obama was at 60%/31.3% approve/disapprove on April 27. A month later, on May 26, he was at 58.7%/33.6%. That's barely a blip.

  7. The 17-16 Democratic edge in the Wisconsin state senate is very temporary. The Wisconsin legislature passed a redistricing plan last year that is very favorable to Republicans, and there is therefore very little chance that Democrats will have a state senate majority next January.


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