Sundry Punditry

The Horse Race That Wasn’t: Obama Won the Election Weeks Ago

Boy, the news media sure made it sound like Romney and Obama were neck and neck all the way to the finish. The results show how wrong they were.

Yes, it was pretty close as far as elections go. President Obama had a few scary moments when it looked like momentum was shifting toward Romney. When I texted my girlfriend on election night and told her Obama won, she wrote back “but Romney has been leading all day.”

It was never really close. Like most people, she was snookered by the media.

The media needs a horse race. It needs drama. It needs close elections to keep viewers tuned in. It needed you to believe, up until the last moment, either candidate could win.

When Romney won the first debate in early October, a collective cheer went up in newsrooms. Not because the media supported Romney over Obama, but because until that point Romney had been sliding down and looking like he had no chance of winning. Obama was up by 5-10 points in state polls where it mattered most: Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin. People like myself were starting to tune out media coverage of the presidential race.

When people tune out, media has less to sell advertisers. Less advertising means less money. Simple economics.

After Romney won the debate he rose in the polls. The race tightened. Breathless headlines proclaimed he still had a shot. It not only attracted people to media to get coverage of the race, it made Republicans happy. Otherwise the last few weeks before the election would have been dominated by headlines declaring Obama unbeatable, and all the drama would have been over.

But drill down into the numbers and you’d know that the additional people who proclaimed support for Romney were not swing voters: they were disaffected Republicans. Romney gave them a glimmer hope. They were never going to vote for Obama, and wanted a good reason to vote for Romney after watching him flail all summer.

The math of the winning the presidency never changed. Obama was still clearly leading the electoral college map.

I knew before that debate that Romney would win it. He had to. Otherwise, game over. I knew he would win because the winners and losers are picked by the media, and the media needed Romney to win.

Of course, Obama helped by getting rocked back on his heels by the outright lies and spin that Romney brought out for the debate. The president’s exasperation was visible. I thought he made the Al Gore mistake of 2000 when he reacted to Bush’s distortions that made himself appear more moderate.

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The headlines following that debate could have easily been, “The Incredible Quick-Change Artist Mitt Romney.” They could have focused on Romney’s sudden conversion from “Severe Conservative” to “Moderate Mitt.” Trust me, if Obama was down in the polls at that point, the headlines would have focused more on Mitt’s turnabout than Obama’s listlessness.

Statisticians like Nate Silver at 538 Blog were not fooled. While Obama’s odds of winning fluctuated down after being declared the loser of the first debate, Silver, like most nonpartisan election experts, knew it would take a miracle for Romney to win. It was possible, yes, but highly improbable. Obama led the electoral college race, and most voters in swing states had already made up their minds.

Bottom line: Don’t believe the hype.

 

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