Monthly Archives: August 2012

“I Didn’t Close That”: When The Tweeterverse Speaks, The Media Listens – Too Closely

It is increasingly clear to me that the Twitterverse has made it more difficult for the traditional media to do its job, which is to cover campaigns accurately.  The ability of partisans to tweet in unison and almost instantaneously in response to almost any campaign event has made it almost impossible for the media to resist basing its initial story on what the Twitterverse considers to be “the truth”.  Instead, under pressure from partisan-driven tweets to write a story in real time, journalists feel compelled to report on news without often fully understanding its context or even, in some cases, getting the facts right.  If they do not report on the incident, reporters feel they may fall behind the twitter-driven news narrative and become irrelevant.

One example from Paul Ryan’s convention address last night illustrates my point.  Early in his speech, Ryan said this:

“When [Obama] talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.”

As Ryan said these words, almost immediately the twitterverse lit up, as Obama supporters pointed out that in fact GM had announced in June, 2008 – before Obama had won election – that it was closing the Janesville plant by the end of 2010. I don’t know who first tweeted this, but within 30 seconds it had ricocheted across the twitterverse, and within minutes was being repeated in live blogs covering Ryan’s speech. (Some tweeted that the plant closed in December of 2008 – again before Obama was even in office, although this also turned out to be incorrect. Maybe.)  Obama tweeters dared the media to do more than simply report on Ryan’s claims, but instead fact-check it (and, presumably, show that the claims were false.) Within a few hours, wire services were reporting on this and other factual errors in Ryan’s speech, and Politifact, one of the many “fact check” organizations that have sprung up to adjudicate these types of disputes, had ruled that Ryan’s claim was false. It noted that in fact, the plant had closed even before Obama took office. Meanwhile, the cable news talking heads were cornering Romney surrogates to ask them about Ryan’s false claims, and newspaper blogs, in a rush to catch up with the twitterverse narrative, were running similar stories.

Score one for the tweeterverse. The tweeters held the mainstream media’s feet to the fire and won, striking a blow for truth, justice and the American way.

Or not. Politifact’s ruling notwithstanding, Romney supporters are standing by Ryan’s claim as factually correct and instead are arguing that it is Obama who has some ‘splaining to do. How can this be?  As it turns out, even as the plant was in the process of closing, it kept on some workers, as Politifact acknowledged parenthetically: “(Several dozen workers stayed on another four months to finish an order of small- to medium-duty trucks for Isuzu Motors.)”  Indeed, as late as October, 2009 about half the Janesville GM workforce was still on the payroll, although production was shut down. In fact, it is in mothballs today, but not necessarily at the end of its productive life.

So was the Janesville plant closed, then, in December, 2008, or was it still open into the Obama administration? Is it even closed today? I suppose it depends on what the meaning of “is”, is.

Meanwhile, what of Obama’s “promise” to keep the plant open? Here’s what candidate Obama said in a February 2008 campaign stop at the Janesville plant: “And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years.  The question is not whether a clean energy economy is in our future, it’s where it will thrive.  I want it to thrive right here in the United States of America; right here in Wisconsin; and that’s the future I’ll fight for as your president.”

But there’s more: in October 2008 candidate Obama said this in response to news that the Janesville plant was slated to close: “Reports that the GM plant I visited in Janesville may shut down sooner than expected are a painful reminder of the tough economic times facing working families across this country…This news is also a reminder that Washington needs to finally live up to its promise to help our automakers compete in our global economy. As president, I will lead an effort to retool plants like the GM facility in Janesville so we can build the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow and create good-paying jobs in Wisconsin and all across America.”

In Politifact’s judgment – one they are sticking by – Obama’s February statement is “a statement of belief that, with government help, the Janesville plant could remain open — but not a promise to keep it open.”  And in the October statement, Obama refers to plants “like” Janesville, but is not necessarily referring directly to the Janesville plant.

So is Politifact right? Was Ryan’s claim false, as the Twitterverse in its righteous indignation initially claimed? I will let you decide for yourself.  I hope you can see, however, that despite the initial Tweeterverse uproar, and Politifact’s subsequent ruling, reasonable people might disagree with the claim that Ryan’s statement is “false.”  (Note that this is only one example – Twitterverse heads began exploding again when Ryan criticized Obama for not heeding the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles commission – recommendations that Ryan voted against.  As you might expect, Ryan supporters are standing by that statement as well.)

My broader point, however, is that this is no way to cover a campaign. I think the instant analysis offered by the partisan denizens of the Twitterverse are accentuating partisan division, and making it harder for journalists to discuss policy differences in a cool-headed manner. Based on these and other experiences during this campaign, I’m not convinced that journalists, when confronted with these types of twitter-driven firestorms, can always take the time to report stories accurately, in a way that does  justice to opposing viewpoints and that addresses the nuances and subtleties of policy debates. They are too afraid that the twitter-driven public narrative will pass them by.  In my view, this erodes the level of public discourse.

I’d develop this point in greater detail, but I don’t have time. Mitt Romney is speaking soon, and I need to tweet my instant, off-the-cuff but always pertinent and insightful responses.

I hope you aren’t paying attention.

Live Blogging the Republican Convention

8:15 Sorry for the late start.  Hope you can join in – just hit the comments button to the right.

So, so far the Republican have trotted out one woman after another.  Do you think  they are aware of the gender gap?

Remember, every politician who gets a plum speaking assignment is hoping to reprise Obama’s 2004 performance and catch lightning in a bottle.

Love that New England accent – a “leaduh”!

By the way, we are watching this on C-SPAN.   Not sure when the national networks are going to cover this.

John Kasich has come fully caffeinated.

Btw, the pundits are constantly over analyzing the content of these speeches.  They are not meant to be policy seminars – they are meant to sketch out broad themes to invigorate the base and maybe draw in first-time listeners…

First campaign ad is up – and what do you know?  It’s a business owner mocking Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech.  I see a theme here.

Wow, still another woman speaker!

Expect to see a lot of homestate references – Gov. Fallin just trotted out the “that dog don’t hunt” saying.  Cue Dan Rather.

(Joe – Have to agree – you never diss someone else’s golf game in public.  Unless it’s Charles Barkley’s.)

Another “you didn’t built that” ad.  I get it.

Republican Governor Bob McDonnell is on.  Another potential VP candidate.  The consolation prize for all of them is apparently a speaking gig at the convention.

Twitter feed people are mocking coverage on major cable stations – too much punditry, not enough speeches.  But it is a reminder that this is not showing on national networks as yet.

The other point to keep in mind is that at least some of these speakers are in line for a post in Romney’s administration.  McDonnel is likely one of them.

McDonnell is introducing another business owner – a woman, to boot.  Do we see a theme here?

On the twitter feed, Obama backers are trying to put the “somebody invested in roads and bridges” where it came in the actual quote.  Not going to make a difference tonight.  Do you think Obama regrets that statement?

Republicans are doing a good job moving this along.  That’s good, because there haven’t been a lot of barnburners speeches so far.

this may change. Scott Walker – the Republican hero who beat back the recall vote in Wisconsin – is up, to big applause.

So far, the Republicans are staying on message.  Nary a mention of a social  issue.

A musical interlude!  A good chance to see what the other stations are running….nothing.

Back to CSPAN – Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval is on.  Another key battleground state.

Rick Santorum is on deck.  Will he pivot to social issues, or stay on the economic message?

One of the things that I think pundits have overplayed is that Romney needs to become more “likable” during this convention.   I don’t think that is going to affect very many votes, one way or the other….

Before Santorum, however, another small business owner – this one from New Mexico.

This time a different Obama speech – the famous “bump in the road” speech.

and here’ s Rick – no sweater vest!

Rick gives a shoutout to his 90+ year old Mom, and then to his son who is a cadet …. let’s see if he stays on message.

So far, so good.  It’s all about the economy, stupid.

But it couldn’t last.  Rick is on to family values, although he’s trying very very hard to link it to the economy.  But he really can’t help himself…In Rick’s defense, he’s trying very hard to link family values, and God, to economic prosperity.

Here’s a nice line – “I shook the hand of the American Dream, and it was strong”…..

And he’s on a lyrical riff here, using the hand metaphor….and here comes the Bella story.

Rick has hit the mark.  Best speech so far….but then he’s had practice.

Meanwhile, the twitter pundits are screeching about Republicans inaccurately claiming that Obama is repealing the welfare work requirement.  He’s not, but that’s not going to stop the Republicans!

In the end, despite the pivot to his social  issues, this was a good speech by Santorum – but I do wonder whether it was more about him than Romney.  I’m guessing the Romney folk are hoping his attacks on Obama resonated.

Next up, another rising star in the Republican field:  U.S Senate candidate Ted Cruz, who – backed by the Tea party – secured the Republican nomination.  He’s speaking without standing behind the podium.  Here’s his chance to shine…. Cruz is laying into Obama, and making an appeal to Hispanic voters.  But he’s largely staying on message…..uh oh, the reference to learning English may prove to be a lightening rod for some….

And now it is Artur!  Olivier Knox claims his speech is scathing.  Remember – four years ago he was nominating Obama!

I’m sitting back to listen.  I’ll be back later….

Artur is on a roll…..

Well, that was the red meat special so far – the right wing twitter feed is lighting up.  They like Artur.  Even more impressive, Obama supporters are taking the time to take his speech down a notch.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is on, while Ann Romney waits in the wings…..

Haley is solid – and here’s Ann, with prime time coverage clicking in.  She’s going to try to “humanize” Mitt, no doubt.

And she’s going to talk about “love”.

(BTW, Matt Drudge has leaked the draft text of the Chris Christie speech – it’s reprinted here:

Meanwhile, Ann begins with an open appeal to women voters.  Remember, Mitt is staring at a huge gender gap….

I don’t find efforts by any Romney to highlight their poor roots very believable.

Ann is doing a much better job when she talks about the reality of marriage.

I have to think this is the best speech of the night….she’s doing a wonderful job…..and here’s the money line… Mitt wasn’t handed success….”he built it”!  cue applause….

And here she’s trying to make Bain a selling point for Mitt – Can she pull that off?

A heckuva speech.  I can see portions of it excerpted for campaign ads.  She is getting a well deserved standing O, and Mitt comes out to join here. Television gold….

Chris Christie coming up….and here’s the preparation with an introductory campaign ad.

Hard to follow that speech, but Christie is probably the guy who can do it. ..

so far, this has been a lot about Christie – not much Mitt so far…..and the tone is an abrupt switch.  We’ve gone from “love” to “what the ‘eff I can get done.”  Think “tough love”….

so far, not much Romney here…..

This is a helluva speech – for Christie.  Is he going to mention Romney’s name?

Ah, he finally does, but Mitt doesn’t look comfortable. I’m afraid that Chris is milking this speech about five minutes too long – he’s pushing Bill Clinton territory.  time to wrap it up Chris…

and he does, but not before imploring the audience to stand up for Mitt (which they do)… to hand it to Chris.  An effective speech – but it probably worked better for him than for Mitt…Note that Chris finished at 10:59 – just in time for the late news!

That’s the wrap for day 1.  I’m switching over to the Red Sox but will try to recap tomorrow……..good night all……

Final thoughts: I think Ann’s speech was the highlight of the night, while Artur was the most effective at riling up the base.  Christie was solid, but there was too much “I” and not enough “Mitt”.

Keep in mind that there a tendency to overreact to any single speech – in the end, all anyone will likely remember is what Mitt says – and maybe not even that.

More in a bit….




Convention Bumps, Race-Baiting and those “Old, Lefty Professors” (Who, Moi?)

It’s been a busy day so far – and the night promises be even busier.  In addition to my post on Artur Davis, one of tonight’s convention speakers, I’ve got another piece just up at the Economist in which I argue that neither Obama nor Romney is likely to get a major polling bump coming out of their respective conventions, but that Romney’s is likely to be bigger than Obama’s by a couple of percentage points.  In a tight race, of course, a 2% net gain may be enough to push Mitt into the lead.  There are signs – so far ignored by most of the media as far as I can tell – that the race is beginning to tighten just a bit.   When I come up for air, I’ll try to post some of the latest poling data to show you what I mean.

Tonight, however, I’m going to be live blogging the Republican Convention.  In case you missed it, Republican delegates formally nominated Mitt as their candidate today. While the media tends to dismiss the convention as a scripted, made-for-television event, that misses its real significance.  As Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan argues in this piece conventions in fact serve as an important learning tool and informational source for voters who are just beginning to tune into the presidential race.  So we ought not to dismiss the event as mere pageantry.  Instead, view this as the opening volley in the general campaign.

There’s another reason to watch tonight, of course – it’s to see the speeches.  Several major figures, including House Speaker John Boehner, are on tap.  Of course, all eyes will be focused on my former student (Ok, my eyes will be!) Artur Davis, who continues to attract controversy for his decision to split from the Democratic Party.  In response to the broadside leveled at him by the Congressional Black caucus earlier today, Davis returned the favor, accusing them of “race baiting.” His comments come as both sides are trying to inject race into the campaign.  Conservatives have been circulating this NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showing not a single African-American respondent supporting Mitt.  Obama supporters have fired back, pointing out that Romney’s recent comments at a Michigan campaign rally regarding his birth certificate is one of those “dog whistles” designed to stir up racial “resentment.”  Davis’ comments are sure to add fuel to the fire.

By the way, if you haven’t seen Olivier Knox’s Yahoo piece on my Davis post, you should take a look, focusing in particular on the readers’ comments.  As with most comments, they are decidedly partisan, and not for the faint of heart (or for those who value grammar, spelling or punctuation).  Thus:

“All of the southern dixie crats switched to the repug party after 1965 check it out. Now the repugs have all of the racest members from the south on their side.”

“Well at least Arthur we know what his academic record was at Harvard…..still waiting for Obama to release his school transcripts…you think the liberal news media could do a story about that!!”

And my favorite:  “That’s the Ticket . Attacking black conservatives in support of the candidate the liberal media sold us – Barack Obama . Great work yahoo once again. Digging up an old leftist college professor to call Davis a weasel. Very balanced .”

Imagine that!  I’m both “old” and a “leftist college professor”!  Who knew?

I’ll be live blogging beginning at 8 – unless Artur comes on earlier.   Hope you can join me – it’s been a while since we’ve done one, and the scotch bottle is full.

UPDATE:  According to the C-SPAN scroll, Davis is speaking at 9:46 – he’s the lead-in to Ann Romney’s speech.  Primetime!

I Knew Artur Davis Before He Was A Republican – Or A Democrat

For most every teacher, I suspect, there are handful of classroom experiences that remain memorable long after the class is over, usually because of the mix of students in that class.  For me one such experience came very early in my teaching career while I was still a graduate student.  Fortunately, in the Harvard Ph.D program grad students were encouraged to teach as part of their training, and I put together a seminar based on my research into the White House staff (the subject of my first book).  To my everlasting gratitude, the course attracted an outstanding group of undergraduates, many of whom I am still in touch with and all of whom went on to lead distinctive lives.

One of those students was Artur Davis.

If you don’t know Davis, you will after tonight.   He is scheduled to give a prime-time address at the Republican National Convention.  What makes this particularly noteworthy is that two years ago Davis, who was the first Democratic congressman outside Illinois to back Obama’s presidential bid, was considered a rising star in Democratic political circles.  In 2002, he had bucked the Democratic establishment to win a seat in the House, representing a district in his home state of Alabama, and he later became one of Obama’s early political supporters.  As a reward for that support in 2008 Davis was given the honor at the Democratic Convention of seconding Obama’s nomination to be president.

But in 2010, Davis lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Alabama.  His defeat was attributed in part by his decision, looking ahead to the general gubernatorial election, to position himself more to the ideological center by, for instance, voting against Obamacare – a strategy that some say cost him support among his core constituency during the primary.   Shortly after his defeat he moved to Virginia and began a political conversion that will culminate in tonight’s major address.

If Davis’ is going to reboot his political career, tonight is a big moment for him.  Polls indicate that few Virginians know who he is, and those few who do don’t particularly like him.  But, as we all know, a primetime convention speech can do wonders for an aspiring politician’s career prospects.

As you might expect, Davis’ Road to Damascus moment is not sitting well with his former Democratic colleagues.  The Congressional Black caucus released a scathing letter today, no doubt timed to blunt the impact of Davis’ speech, that basically accuses him of political treason. Liberal blogs have also taken Davis to task for his political apostasy  while their conservative counterparts are applauding his new-found reason.

I would like to say that I had something to do with Davis’ decision to embark on a political career, if not necessarily his choice of this particular political path.  But I would be lying.  Davis came to my seminar with his political instincts already well honed.  He was a smart student, but in a class of exceptionally bright undergraduates – (four went on to law school, one clerked for the Supreme Court, another served on Capitol Hill), he didn’t stand out for his academic prowess.  Instead, what I remember most about Artur is his insatiable interest in political gossip and current events.  When I discussed in class some of the findings from the White House interviews that I was conducting, Artur was most interested in knowing who was feeding me the information.  Similarly he paid less attention to my discussion of principal-agent models as a means of understanding presidential-staff relations, but was all ears when it came to analyzing the current White House staff.  It came as absolutely no surprise to me that he went into elective politics – it was clear that he was already a political animal.

Tonight is big night for Artur and, as I do with all my former students, I wish him well.  This is not to say I endorse (or do not endorse!) his political conversion.  But politics can be a harsh mistress, and Artur has already developed a noteworthy enemies list.  There’s no need to add to the list.  Instead, he should expect some moral support from a former teacher.

So, knock ‘em dead, Artur.  I’m rooting for you.

Addendum 1:15  – Olivier Knox picked up this story at

Here is an additional reason why the Congressional Black Caucus is irked with Davis – he has come out in favor of stronger voter ID laws.  In an editorial citing his support of strengthening voter identification law, Davis noted that he saw numerous instances of voter fraud  in Alabama.

Addendum II 2:45 p.m.  Another student from that illustrious class, Jeff Cooper, forwards me this youtube video created by the DNC showing the “good” Artur in anticipation of tonight’s speech.

[youtube  watch?v=-Iol_ZMdMDk]


Are Republicans Racially Biased Against Obama?

For several reasons I haven’t said much about the role of race in the current presidential election.  The primary reason is that it is a difficult issue to address empirically, and in contrast to many blogs, my intent at this site isn’t to inculcate or reinforce a particular world view.   If I can’t find at least some data on a topic, I typically don’t have much to say about it. A second reason is that I find that most discussions about race quickly degenerate into ad hominem attacks that begin with “Your mother” and include a reference to “Hitler” somewhere.

But because “Miscweant” raised the race issue in his comment to my last post, and because race received renewed prominence, particularly in the liberal blogosphere, in response to Mitt Romney’s comment during a recent campaign stop in Michigan that “No one ever asked to see my birth certificate”, I wanted to say a few words about race in this post.  I have no illusions that I’m going to change anyone’s views regarding whether and to what degree issues of race are influencing evaluations of Obama and the election.  But perhaps we can move the conversation away from unsubstantiated claims and counterclaims and more toward a fact-based discussion of this important issue.

If you missed the comments section, “Miscweant” writes, in the context of criticizing the “birthers” and others focusing on Obama’s failure to disclose his academic transcripts, etc.: “And if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s plain old all-American racism at the root of it all: a ‘colored person’ couldn’t possibly be smart enough to achieve Obama’s accomplishments – it has to be affirmative action opening doors for an unqualified person.” Miscweant’s comments pick up on a relatively common theme expressed by pundits on the Left, namely, that racism undeniably plays an important role in presidential politics today in ways that undermine electoral support for Obama, and make his presidency more difficult.  Moreover, as Chris Hayes opined recently on NBC, there is a strong belief among many liberals that racism is predominantly a Republican trait.

Are those who propound this view right?  The difficulty in evaluating such comments is that people generally don’t openly profess racist views.  Indeed, they often go to great lengths to hide them – hence, the theoretical basis of the so-called “Bradley effect” (which, as it turns out, has not been empirically demonstrated to exist).  When I give election talks, and am asked about the race issue, I always ask those in the audience to raise their hands if they are racist.  Needless to say, no hands go up.  This means discussion of race often take place in an empirical vacuum, which in turns allows the most strident voices to dominate the discourse.  After all, who can refute their claims?

To get around this, we might ask people questions that we believe tap into underlying race-based sentiments.  When we do so, what do we find?  Both Alex Tabarrok and John Sides look at some survey questions from the General Social Survey and the National Election Studies designed to assess respondents’ racial views.  Tabarrok finds almost no difference between Democrats and Republicans on their views toward interracial marriage, or whether they would vote for a black president. Sides finds slight differences between Republicans and Democrats on responses to questions asking about intelligence and work ethics, as this table indicates:

Sides concludes: “Overall, Republicans are slightly more likely to assess blacks unfavorably on these dimensions.  For example, 39% of Republicans place blacks on the “lazy” side of the scale, while 31% of Democrats do.  But by and large … both parties include substantial fractions willing to stereotype blacks unfavorably.”  Moreover, when he tries to separate respondents by party based on their views toward blacks’ intelligence and work ethic, he finds that “identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican Party tends to increase, as attitudes towards blacks become less favorable—at least when attitudes are measured with two different racial stereotypes.  However, the relationship is far from deterministic: substantial minorities of those with unfavorable attitudes toward blacks identify as Democrats.”

This is by no means the final word on the subject – indeed, it barely scratches the surface of what is a very complicated topic.  I urge you to read both posts in full.  You may find that you read the data differently, and that there are alternative explanations dealing with class or other factors that may explain some of these results.  You might also take a glass half full perspective, with substantial majorities of both Democrats and Republicans with positive racial views. But at least the two authors cite data.  To be sure, as I said above, I have no illusions that survey data like this is going to sway very many people from their beliefs  regarding the relationship between race and partisan identification.   And these questions don’t necessarily do a very good job at measuring what many of us think of as racism. Nor do they address other facets of what is a multifaceted issue, such as racial conflict among non-whites.

So, does racism play a big part in presidential politics?  In part my answer depends on what you mean by “big”.   Based on the admittedly circumstantial evidence cited above, and on the success of forecast models in predicting Obama’s victory in 2008 without referencing race, I believe the answer is no.  Fundamentals associated with the economy are going to be far more determinative come November. And too often I think critics begin with race as their first explanation for Obama’s difficulties in office, when other factors are likely more important.  But this is different from saying race plays no part.  If Obama loses this election, I don’t doubt for a New York minute that at least some of his supporters will blame racism, and that no amount of argument to the contrary will persuade them otherwise.  And, in a very close contest, they may be right – race could conceivably swing enough votes to cost Obama the election.  But that does not mean that race will be the primary explanation for the vote against – or for – Obama.