WSJ gets lost in the weeds with the Romney campaign

A too-savvy take and flawed assumptions undermine some interesting reporting

The Wall Street Journal fronts an interesting but seriously flawed story this morning headlined “How Race Slipped Away From Romney.”

You can probably see the conceptual problem here right away: When was it Romney’s to lose? He led in the national polls, which systematically underestimated Obama’s support, for about three weeks in October, but never came close to leading in the Electoral College.

The WSJ’s central point is that Romney, one of the richest men ever to be nominated for president, lost because his campaign didn’t have enough money between the primaries and the conventions. It assumes, and reports as fact, that political machinations are what lost Romney the election, rather than the fact that people liked him and/or his positions less than they liked Obama’s and that the fundamentals favored the incumbent. It’s a classic of the kind of journalism that elevates savvy insider baseball stuff over substance. This isn’t to say that campaign tactics don’t matter or that they don’t influence races—they do. But the Journal minimizes the fundamental things that matter far more.

Implicit in the WSJ’s assumption that it was Romney’s race to lose: How could Romney lose to someone presiding over the worst economy since the Great Depression? It’s worth looking at because it was behind a lot of poor campaign journalism this year. It’s a more sophisticated version of the anti-Nate Silver backlash best summed up by Peggy Noonan’s theory of the election, which held that her feelings, informed by anecdotes like yard signs she noticed in “tony Northwest DC,” were a better picture of reality than “data on paper.”

In reality, this was Obama’s race to lose all along, as you’d have known if you paid attention the scientists who examine current data and historical trends rather than to pundits who read the tea leaves. The New York Times’s Silver is the most famous of these. But the consensus of political scientists was that Obama was likely to win. Here’s Bucknell’s Chris Ellis yesterday:

First, it provides a useful reminder that the more exotic explanations that pundits often spend the most time talking about as being important to election outcomes — debates, campaign strategies, super PACs, the candidates’ races or religions, gaffes made on the campaign trail — all of those things usually are not as important to who wins and loses as the basic factors that tend to drive American elections.

To the political pundits, what mattered too much was that the economy has been terrible for half a decade now, and Obama has presided over most of that. Certainly that hurt his re-election prospects. But as Ezra Klein wrote a couple of months ago in noting how the political conventional wisdom was wrong, “the data… suggest that incumbents win unless major economic indicators are headed in the wrong direction.”

And the economy, while still weak, is recovering. Payrolls are strengthening, the unemployment rate is down, and GDP is up moderately. Best of all, housing, the primary cause of the recession and the weak recovery is finally rebounding and
consumer confidence is up sharply.

Further, it turned out that most American voters understood the unprecedented multiple disasters Obama inherited in the ruins of the Bush presidency: a financial collapse, an epic housing bust, an overleveraged consumer economy, GDP plunging at a 9 percent clip, unpopular bailouts, massive trade deficits, and trillion-dollar budget deficits (not to mention all that foreign policy stuff). We know that deep financial crises have historically been followed by long depressions or recessions. I don’t think the press, particularly the general press, did a good job at all of explaining this, but it seems like voters intuitively understood it.

This isn’t to mention that Romney’s candidacy was hamstrung from the outset by giant political problems. He was an enormously wealthy financier with offshore bank accounts and sketchy taxes running for president at a time when those guys are seriously out of favor. And squaring his moderate Massachusetts record with the need to win over a far-right Republican base meant he flip-flopped more than any candidate in memory.

To the Journal, Romney’s summer lull allowed Obama to “define the Republican candidate on its terms.” Never mind that he had already defined himself in the primaries.

While it’s fun to get down into the weeds to see how the politicos think, journalists have to step back to look at the bigger picture. The machinations matter much, much less than the big stuff.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,