Political Animal


October 23, 2012 3:05 PM The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

By Ed Kilgore

When my esteemed friend Mike Tomasky writes, “Today may be the most important single day of the campaign,” it gets my attention. It does so particularly when he seems to be hitting the same note of alarm over post-debate spin as two other esteemed friends, Jonathan Chait and Alec MacGillis.

All three of these acute analysts are concerned that the aggressive spin of the Romney campaign that Mitt “won” the debate last night because he “met his objectives” or “reinforced his message” or “won the debate season” or whatever, and its acceptance by much of the MSM, can become what Chait calls a “self-fulfilling prophecy” and lift him to the presidency.

MacGillis offers a brilliant analysis of how “the liberal media” wanted the “story” of a “Romney comeback,” and are sticking to it now with great tenacity.

And Tomasky makes the obvious connection between conservative manipulation and media complicity:

[Conservatives are] constructing an opposite reality. This is at the heart of everything going on right now, I think. It’s what they can do that liberals can’t really do. They’ve always done it. “Romney is going to win” in 2012 isn’t so different from “We’ll be hailed as liberators” in 2003. They say something and try to make it so, and the media go for it time and time again.

All true, and yes, it is maddening. But does it actually matter right now?

As a deep skeptic about the importance of “momentum” in sports or in politics, I keep looking for evidence that the belief a candidate is ahead will add to his or her vote. Yes, obviously, a small but significant number of voters may need to think their candidate has a realistic chance to win in order to find the motivation to vote. But do any pick a president based on who they perceive as being ahead in a close race? Nobody but Dick Morris has been predicting a Romney landslide. But nonetheless, a remarkable number of conservative gabbers and a growing number of liberals seem to think media horse-race perceptions are the ball game.

Maybe that’s so, but I wouldn’t be so sure about it. You can make the argument that an achingly close race in which Obama desperately needs a fantastic GOTV effort might be a “self-fulfillling prophecy” as well, which adds to the zeal and effectiveness of that effort. Yes, conservative “enthusiasm” has always depended on the perception that Mitt wasn’t a stone loser; one he crossed that threshold (one set by the polls rather than any perceived “moderation” or “Etch-a-Sketch Moment”), there was no doubt the GOP “base” would turn out impressively, given the hate frenzy they’ve been in towards Obama for four years now. Beyond that, though, it’s not clear all the spin matters—no matter how deeply annoying and dishonest it is for the MSM to buy it.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Decatur Dem on October 23, 2012 3:16 PM:

    If Obama wins, this sets the Republicans up for wails of "Obama stole it!" "Cause we knew Romney had this thing, so any result to the contrary must prove perfidy!

  • Dredd on October 23, 2012 3:17 PM:

    It is obvious that Romney is a liberal plant, so perhaps the right is being converted to liberalism by the Mittster.



  • nb on October 23, 2012 3:20 PM:

    Yeah ... but then again, what about people motivated to vote because their candidate is in danger of *losing*? I hope this helps ...


  • T2 on October 23, 2012 3:28 PM:

    Ed, I think what Chait and Tomasky are referring to used to be called Propaganda.
    Spend billions of Citizen United money to flood the nation with Romney is Winning ads, depend on the largely Conservative-owned Media to chip in with the meme and hope that the voters will say "maybe it would be ok to like Romney since he is winning" and vote against their best interest. Because make no mistake, a Romney/Ryan White House would be against the best interest of about 95% of Americans. But everybody loves a winner, don't they?

  • jjm on October 23, 2012 3:28 PM:

    It's just a replay of Rove's 'bandwagon' theory. I have a feeling it will fail. Will people really go out and vote to get on that bandwagon if it's a fait accompli?

    Another reason? The pictures of Romney being published all over have him looking his ugliest and meanest. This tells me that the news guys don't believe he is a winner, even if their bosses are telling them to say so.

    The NYT had a devastating editorial on Mitt today.

    and the LA Times had the best joke of all: headline: "Romney Endorses Obama."

  • BillFromPA on October 23, 2012 3:31 PM:

    Decatur Dem, the wingnuts are going to say,"Obama stole it!" with or without a setup. And don't say IF Obama wins, it's WHEN.

  • Kathryn on October 23, 2012 3:34 PM:

    I just heard Matt Miller capitulate on MSNBC's The Cycle, bringing a twinkle to S. E. Cupp's eyes. He is on the team that Mitt's performance was just what he needed, he pretended to be moderate, he seemed to have a presidential temperament, blah, blah, blah. No one sees fit to mention the CBS poll that showed Obama winning by 30 points but man was that important when the first debate was scored. Why do we even bother working our butts off for Obama or voting when the media decides the election? There is literally nothing that Obama can do right But Romney can lie with impunity, he wins.

  • DCSusie on October 23, 2012 3:36 PM:

    I wish I could share your optimism, but clearly the media spin after the first debate, in which MSNBC and other lib media were clearly complicit in turning a mildly weak Obama performance into a supposedly debacle, clearly had a major effect in turning the contest. That said, although I know it would be nothing but hell for the next 4 years, I have to relish the possibility of a Romeny popular vote win/Obama electoral vote win outsome. The resulting red state rage might be the only hope of ever getting rid of the EC, which might be the only hope of every getting back to a semi-sane national political dialogue

  • Peter C on October 23, 2012 3:53 PM:

    I think one of the most effective things that the Obama campaign could do now is hold a really big rally like the ones he held in 2008. You see, I donít think that Romney could pull off a similar event; there just arenít enough NASCAR owners to fill a big stadium. A really big event would do a lot to counter the ridiculous idea that Democrats are not mobilized and enthusiastic, and that, in turn might move the polls.

    Perceptions are important at this stage. The GOP GOTV effort is centered in the Evangelical churches. I donít think they will support Romney if it looks like he is going to lose.

  • Dredd on October 23, 2012 3:55 PM:

    The Donald, The Trump's big announcement is that Mitt is a liberal plant.

  • howard on October 23, 2012 3:55 PM:

    i take a different read than many do here: i think what mattered about the first debate wasn't the media response to it, what mattered is that it bucked up the gop and brought home a lot of people who were looking for a reason to vote for romney.

    that said, it returned the election to what many of us had assumed all along: a close election, but one where obama has an edge because romney has to run the table on all the leaning states to squeeze home.

    that's not impossible, but it's pretty unlikely, and the bandwagon affect is, in my estimation, going to prove as nonexistent in 2012 as it turned out to be when rove pushed it in the first place.

  • bigtuna on October 23, 2012 4:01 PM:

    Why does the low information MSM - LIMSM, keep perpetuating the national polling myth? 1876 and 2000 taught us that this is an election comprised of 49 winner take all races, and 2 proportional races. Nate Silver has Obama up to a 70% probability of winning, on a slow increase from last week, and his modelling of EC votes is slowly ticking upwards to July-Aug levels. Both trends are opposite the alleged momentum for romnesia.

    Regardless of Silver's modeling, why does the LIMSM not discuss the numbers that really matter - the voter turnout of the swing states? Who gives a rats ass what Gallup nationwide shows? It does add to the Rovian bandwagony theory, so maybe perpetuates the race, keeping the eyeballs to the screens. The Rs are using the 2000 strategy again - flood the airwaves with the notion of victory; after awhile it becomes accepted. What do dems have to do? GOTV, and get Biden, Clinton, etc out in force in the mid major markets, and then get the big dogs to Columbus, Madison, Iowa, etc., in the last weekend. And always always alway be on the offensive.

    And, I am very very suspicious of some of the poll results - I don't buy that they do a good job sampling cell phone only people, or hispanic populations.

  • SecularAnimist on October 23, 2012 4:01 PM:

    I think you should be a lot more concerned about the GOP's massive nationwide campaign of voter suppression and disenfranchisement through voter roll purges, intimidation, deceit and fraud -- and of course, the fact that Romney's family owns the easily hackable electronic voting machines that will be used in Ohio and elsewhere.

    The GOP stole the 2000 election in Florida, and the 2004 election in Ohio. And what they are doing this year dwarfs those efforts.

    The "MSM narrative" of Romney's "momentum" is a preemptive coverup of the theft of another presidential election.

  • MBunge on October 23, 2012 4:10 PM:

    "The resulting red state rage might be the only hope of ever getting rid of the EC, which might be the only hope of every getting back to a semi-sane national political dialogue"

    You might want to think that through. If Romney wins the popular vote, then the absence of the Electoral College would only mean the Dems would have to move EVEN MORE TO THE RIGHT than they already have in order to win the White House.

    The best way of getting back to a semi-sane politcal dialog would be for the GOP to find itself locked out of the Presidency by the EC and forced to change in order to appeal to more than angry white men and the women who love them.


  • Michael on October 23, 2012 4:13 PM:

    I pretty much agree with all of the comments already made, but I would like to make one additional point. Americans should be offended that the sorry performance turned in by Romeny last night (not to mention over the course of the prior 2 debates) is considered enough to be President...As one commentor correctly pointed out, this is known as propoganda, an area where the GOP excels...Its too bad that the MSM finds itself content to be complicit in this side show.

  • Larry McD on October 23, 2012 4:33 PM:

    I got a CNN "Breaking News" email early this AM. The first line read:

    "There was no clear winner of tonightís presidential debate, according to a CNN/ORC International Poll of people who watched."

    They then explain that 48% of those polled think President Obama won the debate while 40% think Governor Romney won. Further along they add that 59% think that the President performed better than expected with 15% thinking weaker, while the Governor's ratings were 44% vs. 26% in the same categories.


  • T2 on October 23, 2012 4:40 PM:

    @ Michael - "Its too bad that the MSM finds itself content to be complicit in this side show."
    The MSM, as well as Cable Media are owned by Conservatives. They are "complicit" because that is the REASON they own the Media outlets...to rig things in their favor.

  • Hue and Cry on October 23, 2012 4:51 PM:

    I don't know, Ed. This morning I nebbed onto Romney apologist Joe Scarbrough's Morning Joe facebook page to see many, many responses to him that were hyper-negative and critical of the Republican spin on any success for Romneyy~~~~ with just a couple in agreement with Morning Blow's insane stance. There were thousands of criticisms.
    Most people said anyone who watched the debate knows Romney did not win, that the president was superior.
    Those quick polls substantiated it.
    If people follow the polls related to Romney, they will take note of those favoring the president--i would think

  • Rip on October 23, 2012 5:02 PM:

    Despite the gyrations of the polls and the urgent spin of a Romney surge continuing for two weeks after his numbers have flatlined, Rand's American Life Panel respondents consistently think Obama will win regardless of who they plan to vote for. He was at a high of over 56% at the end of September, and has dropped to 53% thinking he will win more recently, running about 5 points ahead of his actual support. Romney was at a low of just under 40% and more recently at 43% , about 3 points below his level of support.

    These gaps have been pretty consistent in relation to support for the candidates for a while and would indicate that if anyone is perceived as being the winning candidate it's Obama.

  • Quaker in a Basement on October 23, 2012 5:17 PM:

    "Momentum" is just a convenient way to misunderstand regression to the mean.

  • schtick on October 23, 2012 5:31 PM:

    Of course Willard won. Heads he wins, tails Obama loses.

  • Hue and Cry on October 23, 2012 6:07 PM:

    I briefly watched Fox News' echo chamber's right winger Sean Hannity after the debate--he was seated at a table near a crowd of people at the debate, and Hannity was just repeatedly shouting to his panel--really looking like he personally was losing it.
    It absolutely seemed like a psychiatric hospital activities area without key staff to supervise.
    As if Hannity knew Romney had blown the debate, lessening the dream of Republicans' chances--which made Hannity crazy mad. It was ugly to behold.
    And passers-by seemed taken aback by how loud the Fox people were.Almost startled looking. As if Hannity with cronies were unwilling to accept the unfolding defeat Mitt gave to them, and instead the president shined big.
    Today Bret Baier, another Fox guy, had a picture of the president with the words "Two Week Notice." It was sick.

  • coralsea on October 23, 2012 9:04 PM:

    CNN is still on the air??

    I can't tell you the last time I tuned into the Republican Pravda. Certainly not since Hurricane Katrina.

    I'm actually hoping for a tight Obama victory. The sound of right-wing heads exploding will be music to this old man's ears.

  • jhm on October 24, 2012 7:20 AM:

    I'll throw this out there FWIW.

    I'm in Mass., where a Senatorial race has brought in a lot of talk about control of the legislature vis-ŗ-vis the Presidential race. A local pollster raised the possibility that, while people have the perception that the President will cruise to re-election, they might be more comfortable pulling the lever for the GOP down ballot. So far, so good, but he also said that it might just as easily be that voters inclined to support divided government would look at a closer presidential contest as a disincentive to split the ticket. I can't pretend to understand people who support the GOP, let alone 'divided government' as currently constituted, so I'm not in a position to say how this may or may not be realistic.

  • Salem Progressive on October 24, 2012 3:39 PM:

    I think this is a major issue for this election and all elections. The MSM has demonstrated many times in this election cycle that it is willing to attack and read into the comments of Democrats and liberals, but is afraid to question or read into conservative & Republicans. My opinion is that it is the fear of the immediate whip from conservative media that it would prove liberal bias.

    The big problem for me is the unequal treatment. After the first debate liberals did the dance when asked did Obama won and said he met his objectives and showed he was on the side of women and the middle class. The MSM then used that to say that Obama's own staff doesn't think he won and felt he didn't perform as well as Romney. I watched conservatives say the exact same things and though polling show Obama won by a bigger margin among voters, the MSM reported that Romney won by proving that he could be presidential on foreign affairs even though voters didn't think he won (nor as far as I can tell did voters think he looked presidential in comparison to the president that thrashed him).