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On Moneyball and Romney’s “Momentum”

- October 24, 2012

The lesson of this debate over Romney’s momentum — see James Fallows — is this: reporters have to ground their stories in data.  It’s fine to quote from campaign officials and gauge their mood.  But rather than use this to conjure up a narrative that implies SOMETHING NEW IS HAPPENING HERE!, reporters can be the watchdogs they typically want to be and use the data to scrutinize the spin.

If they did use the data, what they would see is this.  Romney definitely closed or at least narrowed the gap nationally after the first debate (there is some debate about how much he did so), and the gap tightened as a consequence in key swing states.  That made Obama’s lead in states like Ohio smaller and it arguably gave Romney a narrow lead in FL and a tie in VA.

On the other hand, that debate was almost 3 weeks ago.  Nothing that’s happened since then has helped him gain much, if any, additional ground.  All of the models and polling averages suggest relative stasis since then: 538, Sam Wang, Votamatic, Pollster, RCP.  So why are we talking about Romney’s momentum now?

The consequence of giving in to “narrative” and refusing to play Moneyball is evident at Politico.  Just 2 days ago, Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin were on the leading edge of the Romney momentum story:

With a little more than two weeks left until judgment day, Barack Obama’s campaign is embracing a fundamentally defensive strategy centered on winning Ohio at all costs — while unleashing a new barrage of blistering attacks against Mitt Romney aimed at mobilizing a less-than-fired-up Democratic base. A surging Romney is suddenly playing offense all over the map, and the upward movement since the Denver debate gives him the luxury of striking what his advisers — and more than a few Democrats — think is a more positive, presidential, “Morning in America” tone.

The rest of the story goes on to hedge a bit here and there, but the overall message is clear from the lede. And now this morning Mike Allen walks it back quite a bit:
As an antidote to the (perhaps) irrational Republican exuberance that seems to have seized D.C., we pause for the following public-service announcement. To be President, you have to win states, not debates. And Mitt Romney has a problem. Despite a great debate and what The Wall Street Journal’s Neil King Jr. on Sunday called a polling “surge,” Romney has not put away a single one of the must-have states. President Obama remains the favorite because he only needs to win a couple of the toss-ups. Mitt needs to win most of them. A cold shower for the GOP: Most polling shows Romney trailing in Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire and Iowa – by MORE than Obama trails in North Carolina. Glenn Thrush and Jonathan Martin reminded of us of the 2008 primary analogy: Whatever else Hillary Clinton had, Barack Obama had the math. And math, not momentum, gets you the big house, the bulletproof car, the cool plane.
This is a problem I’ve noted before regarding Politico in particular, but the problem isn’t limited to them.  When you can’t peg your analysis to any consistent metrics, you end up veering all over the place following the well-known incentive to write interesting stories.  On Monday, OBAMA SURGES.  On Tuesday, ROMNEY SURGES.  Other media repeat the same story because pack journalism lives.    And so on.  In reality, nothing changed and the polling fluctuations are just sampling error.
Again, the lesson is: write the story of what the campaigns are doing, but use the data to bird-dog their spin.