Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Pennsylvania: The expectations game

Nothing annoys me quite as much as Election Day guesswork like this item at the Weekly Standard's blog:
Pennsylvania voters might produce a surprisingly close outcome in today’s Democratic primary. The buzz in Washington from several Democratic operatives I
talked to yesterday suggests Team Obama is fired up and ready to over perform.
"They’re putting out the word they won’t win, but it will be close," a veteran Democratic operative told me. And in this expectations game, "close" is a win, especially since Clinton needs a 8-10 point win to keep her narrative alive. They must see something in their tracking numbers that suggests the race has tightened. . . .
(Via Memeorandum.) Look, people, we'll have actual election results in just a few hours. Why not just wait a little while until they start counting votes in Pennsylvania, instead of bothering the readers with what can only be called pre-spin?

And what the hell is this secondhand blind-source reporting crap? A "veteran Democratic operative" says Team Obama is "putting out the word," and on the basis of that, you boldly declare that the Obama campaign "must" -- must! -- "must see something in their tracking numbers." That's not news, that's gossip.

If I sound a bit testy on this subject, it's because I got a minor secondhand burn from Monday's Drudge Report exclusive about the Clinton campaign's internal poll showing them with a double-digit lead in Pennyslvania. I cited that report in my story about Hillary's Harrisburg wrap-up rally, but today Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee denies that any such poll exists.

This is the trouble with anonymous sources and secondhand reporting, see? I have no idea who Drudge's sources were, so I ended up with poll numbers in my story that I cannot verify, Team Hillary can deny the whole thing, and I've got no way to resolve this factual dispute.

At least I cited Drudge as my source, whereas the Weekly Standard has an anonymous "veteran Democratic operative" feeding them info about what "must"(!) be in Obama's internal polling. While I can blame Drudge for my gaffe, who will the Weekly Standard blame if the "veteran Democratic operative" has it all wrong?

Playing the expectations game on Election Day is a waste of time, anyway, since nothing published on Election Day can have any effect on the outcome. No Democratic primary voter in Pennsylvania is going to log onto the 'Net, surf over to the Weekly Standard site and say, "A-ha! That clinches it! I'm voting for Obama!"

And despite what a "veteran Democratic operative" tells Gary Andres, neither the source nor the reporter has any firm idea what the outcome will be when the votes are finally tallied. If you want to make an actual prediction -- for example, if you'd like to put $20 on the proposition that the margin of victory in Pennsylvania will be less than 6 points -- then, by all means, make that prediction. But knock it off with all this pseudo-predictive "sources say" crap.

People have gotten into this habit of talking in a pseudo-predictive way on Election Day because they've watched TV news people do it for so long. There's the TV news anchor at "Decision '08 Headquarters," waiting for the actual vote counts to start coming in. The anchor's got to fill the time with something, so he brings on pollsters and analysts and commentator types to chatter away about "key demographics," and how Candidate X needs to score big with middle-aged suburban white women in order to have a chance to win.

Some of this "Decicion '08 HQ" blather may actually be true, but that doesn't mean it's not still blather, since whatever actual facts they report -- e.g., the vote counts, the demographics, past voting trends, poll numbers, etc. -- are readily available to the public from other sources.

It ill behooves writers to imitate this kind of idiotic TV news blather.

UPDATE: Jim Antle reacts to the Gary Andres report:
"Remember, closeness counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and unexpectedly close Pennsylvania primaries!"
For what it's worth, I think the Obama people are blowing smoke. I expect Hillary to win Pennsylvania by double digits, perhaps by as much as 14 points. But I may be biased, because Hillary and I are so close.

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