David Brooks and the Fundamentals: Déjà Vu All Over Again

by John Sides on May 16, 2012 · 6 comments

in Campaigns and elections

David Brooks’s recent column argued this:

Why is Obama even close? If you look at the fundamentals, the president should be getting crushed right now.

And thus this flight of fancy:

He has defined a version of manliness that is postboomer in policy but preboomer in manners and reticence.

This is “ESPN masculinity,” apparently.  Ezra Klein responds:

But the premise of the column is wrong: If you look at the fundamentals right now, the president should not be getting crushed. In fact, he should be slightly ahead, which is pretty much where he is in most polls…
…Pundits take political situations that can be explained through the fundamentals and then attribute them, without any evidence, to the telegenic characteristics of individual politicians or the messaging decisions made by their campaigns.

What’s amazing about this episode is David Brooks did exactly the same thing in 2008.  Except in 2008—it was August when he wrote—he was puzzled as to why Obama wasn’t crushing McCain.  Instead of asking “Why is Obama even close?” he was asking “Where’s the Landslide?”  As my reply made clear, the fundamentals at that point did not predict an Obama landslide.  The average of the forecasting models was about 52%.

Once he made this mistake, Brooks, as he did this time, reverted to the wooliest armchair psychology: voters were “slow to trust” Obama because he was a “sojourner” whose “journey” made it hard to understand “the roots and values in which he is ineluctably embedded.”

Although certain factors may combine to advantage Obama in 2012—modest GDP growth, mediocre but not terrible approval numbers, incumbency—other factors may not advantage him, like the kinds of polling data Brooks points to.  The sum of these is, as Gallup puts it regarding Obama’s approval numbers, a “gray zone” that implies uncertain reelection prospects, not a “crushing,” a landslide, a shellacking, etc.

{ 6 comments }

Jay Livingston May 16, 2012 at 10:47 am

Maybe there’s something about writing 750 words twice a week that are read by millions of people — it makes you think you know more about reading the data than do those unimaginative slobs at Brookings or wherever who do spend their working lives making those kinds of assessments.

(Personal note: is it just my aging eyes plus maybe the tight-kerning, sans-serif font of Google Reader, or does anyone else find that “boomer,” especially in unusual combos like “preboomer,” leaps off the page at first glance as “boner”?)

Thomas May 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I don’t think it’s entirely satisfying to include approval ratings as part of the “fundamentals.” We’re trying to understand why people support Obama despite poor economic conditions, and pointing out that they approve of him doesn’t help us at all. If the complaint is that Brooks should be including approval ratings in his understanding of the fundamentals, the complaint is misguided.

LFC May 16, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Brooks writes that Obama “has governed from the left.” Didn’t this blog run a post some time ago about how moderate Obama is compared to other Dem. presidents?

m913 May 17, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Shorter Brooks: My ideas do not seem to be matching up with reality. What’s wrong with reality?

Ed Johnson May 17, 2012 at 12:42 pm

If penetratingly banal musings are your cup, then Brooks runneth over. His columns are full of the painfully obvious observation, usually based on Conventional Wisdom or Common Knowledge he garners from drinks in Georgetown with the Potomac Glitterati.

This is then even more painfully beaten into a frothy conclusion of Brooks Wisdom, a conclusion which should leave no doubt as to that hidden kernel, that nugget, that facet no one other than the keen, stalwart, persevering, perspicacious Brooks could ever have found.

He honestly makes my skin crawl.

Rajesh December 19, 2012 at 9:12 am

Hey Tyler!So glad you decided to get invevlod and start writing this blog, although I really understand it must be hard. I’ve known a few people who have CF, and every single one is like you courageous, smart, and willing to put themselves out there so that people understand this terrible disease. It’s so important for folks to know what you’re up against every day, because most just don’t get it I keep hearing What’s a cystic fibrosis? and it takes people like you to get the message out that this is a disease we all need to fight. How is it, having to do daily CF therapy while going to university? Paul

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