Will the loser in next week’s presidential election blame his fate on hurricane Sandy? “First Read” over at NBC News raised that question Wednesday, and we think it’s interesting. That’s because it gets at the fine line between actual effects and magical thinking, which is part of so many expert narratives about political campaigns.
As the First Read gang notes, “Given how close this election is, it won’t be surprising if the losing side ends up blaming Sandy, whether it’s fair or not.”
If President Obama fails in his bid for a second term, his staff may turn around and point at the three days of campaigning he’s lost to Sandy-related activities.
If Mitt Romney falls short in his bid to unseat Mr. Obama, his campaign could ascribe the loss to the perception that Sandy “elevated the president and stopped the momentum narrative for Romney,” First Read writes.
There are ways Sandy could really affect voting outcomes next Tuesday, of course. Pennsylvania got hammered; if flooding and lack of power depresses turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia, it is possible the Keystone State could swing to Mr. Romney, providing him a path to 270 electoral votes. If New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie continues to praise Obama for his storm response, it is possible some swing voters in, say, Virginia will be impressed.
Single events have already appeared to sway the course of the 2012 campaign. Romney rose substantially in the polls following his strong performance in the first presidential debate.
But “elevated the president and stopped the momentum narrative for Romney”? Please. Saying that wouldn’t be punditry. It would be soothsaying.
We’re not picking on First Read here: They’re not saying they believe that stuff themselves. They’re saying other people might say it in the face of defeat, and they’re right about that. Romney, Obama, it wouldn’t matter. Both sides have officials/surrogates/partisans who could utter that kind of thing with a completely straight face.
Which brings us to our main point: We’ve come to political punditry at a relatively advanced point in our journalistic career, and we’re constantly surprised by its imprecision. It’s like sportswriting (which we’ve also done) without the intellectual discipline imposed by the feedback loop of player stats and game scores.
“Shaping the narrative” is one of our favorite phrases. When you hear somebody say that on one of the shouting-pundit cable shows, your internal horse-patty detector should go off. “Defining expectations” is another. “Momentum” is in general a suspect subject, though it’s a bit more solid since you can always check actual polls. And so on. If you’ve made it this far, we’re sure you can provide plenty of your own examples.
So beware folks spouting off about the “Sandy effect” as if they’re sure what it is. Losers need scapegoats, and it’s easier to point the finger at a 500-mile-wide storm than at their candidate or his campaign.