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November 01, 2013 4:59 AM Five Terrible Pundit Mistakes in One Wretched Ron Fournier Column

By Jonathan Bernstein

Oh god:

This is what happens when the two parties ruling Washington lose touch with America and pander to their crazy-extreme bases: President Obama’s competency and personality ratings are nose-diving, according to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll; barely a sliver of the public thinks highly of the Republican Party; and two-thirds of Americans want to replace their own member of Congress.

Actually, this is what happens when a reporter is obsessed with insisting that the two parties are mirror images of each other: he manages to miss what may be a real story because he’s so intent on serving up a pre-baked conclusion.

It’s a whole bundle of Worst Practices in one convenient basket.

First, he treats the NBC/WSJ poll in a vacuum. Obama received his worst-ever approval here, but the 42% isn’t anything special across all polls in terms of an all-time low, so highlighting it is probably misleading.

Second: It’s also likely that the five point drop registered in this poll compared to one in the first week of October is flukish, as a check of the HuffPollster numbers would suggest. I’m not sure moving from 47 to 42 is a “dramatic decline” even if real, but the odds are that most of that is just random movement, not reality. HuffPollster’s current approval estimate is 43%, down a small fraction of a percentage point since that earlier NBC/WSJ sounding.

Third: Fournier “explains” this “dramatic decline” purely in terms of Obama’s choosing to listen to his “base” and not median voters. But if some of the drop (and over several months, there has definitely been a drop — and perhaps the drop is really concentrated in October) is about ACA rollout, is that really about catering to his strongest supporters? I’d say it’s more about mismanagement. Fournier suggests that NSA and Syria could be part of the problem (and never mind that the Syria thing and most of the NSA thing preceded that early October poll); if so, that certainly has nothing to do with being overly focused on keeping liberals happy. More likely, in my view? The long-term decline matches nicely with the long-term decline, since the end of May, of Gallup’s economic confidence index — in other words, this could be about the economy. And, if I had to guess, sequestration.

Fourth: There’s also the question of whether those “crazy-extreme” bases are in fact crazy and/or extreme. It matters! It’s absolutely true that strong Democratic voters have strong views on, say, health care reform and want the ACA to succeed, and that does impose constraints on a Democratic president. But that’s not the same as the constraints imposed by Tea Party radicals who wanted Republicans to shut down the government until ACA was defunded, while also expecting to blame Obama for the shutdown. I’d probably also argue that the influential parts of the Democratic Party are less “extreme” than the influential parts of the Republican Party, but it’s quite important to be aware that Democratic-leaning crazies have basically zero influence within their party, while GOP-leaning crazies have quite a bit. Which may well have something to do with the terrible polling Republicans are getting.

Indeed, to the extent that “Crazies are destroying your party” (the headline to the piece, so probably not his fault, but it accurately captures what he’s saying), what’s probably happening is that the Ted Cruz/Louie Gohmert crazies who pushed the shutdown are hurting the approval ratings of both parties.

Fifth: I don’t think I got around to linking to a fun guide to anonymous Washington sources that Ryan Grim and Jason Linkins did earlier this week — it’s excellent! At any rate, it was fun to read Fournier’s column, which attributes lots of weight to “a Democratic operative who works with the White House” and a “GOP operative who also requested anonymity.” Let’s just say that Grim and Linkins weren’t exactly impressed with those credentials.

Hey: just this morning, I praised Josh Kraushaar (who I’ve been hard on in the past) for an excellent column. I’d much rather be doing that! I’d much rather be pointing out Best Practices columns than this Worst Practices one (maybe I should do an Oi! item for good examples). This junk, though? Oy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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