On Jennifer Rubin’s Mediocrity, Polling Expectations, and a Word on Romney’s Taxes

Jennifer Rubin is the Washington Post’s resident conservative blogger.  As Eric Alterman pointed out in a longform Nation article several weeks ago, she’s uniquely terrible.  The Post clearly holds her to a lower standard than the rest of its writers.  Her assertions (frequently incorrect) are undersourced.  Her omissions are rarely and slowly corrected.  Rubin is the fig leaf that the Post offers to conservative readers, in the hopes of defusing “liberal media” accusations.*

Her post last night was titled “July Panic for Obama – for Good Reason.”  If you’ve been following the news lately, you probably didn’t buy the premise.  This past week we’ve seen the Romney campaign flailing about, trying in vain to explain the candidate’s “retroactive retirement” from Bain capital and deflect attention from his years of unreleased tax returns.  Meanwhile, the Obama campaign and has been surprisingly surefooted.  Their new attack ad, “Firms” (below) is widely being discussed as the best ad of the cycle so far.  Liberal and conservative pundits alike are calling on Romney to release his tax returns.  Romney is playing defense, while Obama is looking comfortable challenging his record.  This just isn’t a very good week to pitch a story about Obama panicking.  If this is what panic looks like, what would a calm campaign look like?

Rubin argues that the evidence of “panic” is that, (a) the Obama campaign is running a lot of attack ads and (b) in the midst of all these attack ads, the polls haven’t changed much.  The race was close in June and its still close in July.  She compares the attack ads to “the Confederacy’s artillery barrage on the third day of Gettysburg before Pickett’s charge.”  (That’s right, Obama would be the confederacy in this analogy. Classy.  Like I said, the Post holds Rubin to a …different standard)  And she thus concludes that the strategy “isn’t working.”

Let me offer you a little campaign spoiler: the polls will also be close in August, September, and October.  We live in a sharply divided nation.  Most voters — particularly most high-information voters who are paying any attention right now — have already made up their minds.

Consider the 2008 election as a ceiling.  Obama won 52.9% of the vote, McCain won 45.7%.  That’s a 7.2% gap, and it was viewed as a historic blowout.  That election was in the midst of an economic collapse, running against a party that was utterly unpopular, and running against a candidate with plenty of flaws and minimal base support. Under those best-of-all-possible circumstances, Obama managed 53% of the vote.

Four years later, with 8% unemployment, none of those McCain voters are going to swing their vote to the Obama column.  I’d call this a political science secret, except political science bloggers have been shouting it from the rooftops for months.  The polls are close enough that short-term variation is more likely to be random noise than a genuine campaign effect.  If you’re looking into the latest poll results in order to read tea leaves of which campaign is panicking, then you’ve chosen the wrong metric.

But just because the polls don’t fluctuate much doesn’t mean that campaigns don’t matter.  Rather, campaigns matter in specific ways — the campaign narrative shapes how attentive publics view the race, which in turn influences levels of mobilization and the tone and content of later media coverage.  An effective July campaign is  one that inspires supporters while discouraging your opponents.  An effective July campaign is one that sets up a base of “common knowledge” that puts your opponent at a disadvantage in the fall.  And by these measures, the Obama campaign has had an outstanding month.

And this leads back to Romney’s insistence that he won’t release any of his pre-2010 tax returns.  CNN’s Erin Burnett said on-air yesterday that there were only three explanations for his failure to release the returns: (1) he’s  got more money in tax havens, (2) he’s done something shady, or (3) he’s stupid.  George Will and Bill Kristol have also called on him to release the tax returns already.  The Obama campaign has a new ad up asking “what is he hiding?”

As campaign issues go, this one has narrative-shaping staying power.  The reason is that it strikes right at the core of the journalistic id.  Those tax returns exist.  The McCain campaign saw them in 2008, then selected Sarah Palin instead.  Romney’s own father set the modern standard for presidential tax returns, releasing 12 years of them in 1968 and explaining that one year alone could be a “fluke.”  The Bain controversy has only added fuel to the fire – the one piece of news that came out of Romney’s mini-press tour last Friday was that his 2010 and 2011 tax returns would have to be sufficient for the American public to judge his record.

This issue won’t go away, and it isn’t because of some mythological “liberal media bias.”  Every member of the press corp shares a journalistic ideal of the intrepid reporter who uncovers the dirty secrets of powerful actors.  Pretty much every journo-blogger shares that ideal as well (Rubin herself being a likely exception).  The journalistic profession rewards reporters who unearth hidden details.  The entire future-of-news discussion has revolved around the role that public interest journalism (read: investigative journalism and local news reporting) plays in preventing or rooting out corruption.

The Bain controversy will likely fade away by the fall.  Romney has told a self-contradictory story under oath.  That’s perjury, but he’ll be able to weather that storm.  There simply isn’t too much more story to be told.  Romney headed Bain until October 1999, when he kinda-sorta left to run the SLC Olympics.  His relationship to Bain was cloudy for the next three years, until he decided to run for MA Governor and resolved it.  That’s the whole story, and all the commotion so far has concerned the “cloudy” period.  Democrats will want the press to keep paying attention to that issue, but the press will eventually get tired and move on.

The taxes are a different matter.  Romney has sent up a giant signal flare announcing “please do not ask about my pre-2010 tax returns!  You’ll find things that I don’t want the public to know.”  Every journalist, every editor, every human being involved in the news biz is fundamentally wired to gather around that signal flare and see where it leads.  Stonewalling denials won’t kill the story, because the more he stonewalls, the bigger the story appears to be.

Romney is either going to release his tax returns in the next week or two, or we will have found the major campaign narrative for the fall.  The question will come up in October’s debates.  Democrats will craft media events around the tax issue.  Journalists will respond, not because they’re partisan, but because that’s what journalism at its best is meant to do — unearth secret information that powerful elites want to hide from the public.

Only Jennifer Rubin could look at the last few weeks and see “panic” for the Obama campaign.  Count that as reason #1,509,347 why the Post ought to hire someone better.



*This fig leaf strategy has never, ever worked.  But like Charlie Brown and Lucy with the football, mainstream journalistic outlets keep trying it nonetheless.