Defending Political Journalists

Matt Yglesias writes:

Political journalists...end to focus on campaign happenings... [as] key determinant[s] of election outcomes. Research...indicates that most people vote as dogmatic partisans and that most ...variance can be explained by macroeconomic trends.

Primary campaign voters, by contrast, are more fickle because there's much less underlying difference between the contenders. And one thing primary voters look at is electability, and another thing they look at is elite support and elites look a lot at electability. Voters and elites alike, meanwhile, like reporters, tend to wildly overestimate the importance of contingent campaign happenstance on election outcomes. Consequently, a primary season campaign gaffe that's seen as potentially harmful during the general election is arguably more likely to hurt you in the primary because of the perception that it'll hurt you in the general than it is to actually hurt you in the general election.

If we date the modern era of elections to 1960, there have been twelve campaigns from which we can draw data. That is simply too few to make more than basic generalizations; certainly, we cannot make projections based on isolated variables like macroeconomic conditions. In 2000, in robust economic conditions, the candidate who won the most votes did not win the election; the candidate, indeed, who may have won the election might have won the election; the contingent happenstance that tipped the scales in favor of George W. Bush can be narrowed to a few, one of them the Bush campaign's superior legal tactics in Florida.

In 2004, macroeconomic variables were not dispositive; national security variables seemed to be.

In this cycle, as I have written before, there is a clear single strategic insight that is responsible for Obama's success and Clinton's failure; it is the lock-and-key fit between Obama's candidacy and his type of Democratic voter, and caucus process that allowed them to rack up votes and delegates of affluent, young, liberal activists.

If Matt is referring here to Power/Wright/Ferraro, I don't agree that these issues really play all much of a role in the primaries. For the most part, they seem to have convinced Democrats that Hillary Clinton is making unfair attacks against Obama. They also seem to be turning Republicans on to McCain and off to Obama...transforming Obama into more of a partisan Democrat. And I think Matt shortchanges the very real differences between Clinton and Obama. Issues, no. Style of governance? Yes. Indeed, the approach to governing of Clinton and McCain are closer to each other than their respective styles are to Obama; that accounts, I think, for some of the intense polarization that we see among Democrats.