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.

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