Popular Misconceptions Die Hard

In today’s Springfield Republican there is a very reasonable, well written, and well sourced article about the upcoming special election to fill John Kerry’s US Senate seat. Yet, the piece contains at least one incorrect characterization of the Brown-Warren race just concluded, as well as some unreasonable implications regarding the potential of Bay State Republicans to benefit from the lessons of 2012 in a 2013 campaign.

The article refers to the 2012 race as having been “highly competitive.” It was not even moderately competitive. The illusion of competitiveness in the 2012 race comes from the serious over-estimation of the value of candidate preference polling and an even more serious under-appreciation of the significance of structural elements of the race, most notably the composition of the electorate, which was easily predictable from the outset.

The difficulty for journalists and analysts here is that even if they do recognize the aforementioned dynamic, it remains true that candidates and their campaigns are not irrelevant to electoral outcomes. It is also true that readers, viewers, and listeners are most receptive to “personalized” analysis of politics. So covering the upcoming contest as a “horse race” does have some analytical value, though its primary value is in attracting and maintaining an audience for the analysis.

I recognize and appreciate this dilemma, but remain frustrated at the unintended consequences for voters’ level of civic knowledge. I wish a more realistic balance could be struck in media coverage of the upcoming contest, and believe such an effort could yield positive educational benefits.

Strictly speaking, this article contains ALL the requisite qualifications from its expert sources, which is to say that they essentially qualify their focus on the candidates and potential campaign effects with the disclaimer that larger structural forces will shape the race. This makes my criticisms seem petty, which they kind of are with respect to this particular article, since the horse race analysis in it is sound and reasonable in and of itself, as it often is. Unfortunately, its the cumulative impact of an analytical focus on the horse race that creates problems and nurtures popular misconceptions.

To me, this sort of analysis about the 2013 senate race is like pro football analysts spending the bulk of their time discussing the impact of the kickers on the teams’ chances of making it to and winning the Super Bowl. It is certainly undeniable that the performance of the kickers could well be the difference between victory and defeat (just ask Pats fans), but imagine if football announcers and analysts only discussed the primary factors related to the teams’ chances of success 10% of the time, using 90% of there airtime and column inches on the health, performance, and even the temperament of each team’s place kicker. Imagine further that fans rely primarily on the sports press and punditocracy for their knowledge of the game.

Food for thought. I hope.

About Jerold Duquette

Jerold Duquette is an associate professor of political science at Central Connecticut State University. He is the author of Regulating the National Pastime: Baseball and Antitrust and has published articles and book chapters on campaign finance reform, political parties, Massachusetts politics and political culture, public opinion, and political socialization. Professor Duquette lives in Longmeadow, MA with his wife and four children.
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