Why Political Journalism Needs Data

All the recent quarreling over Nate Silver’s election model has obscured the fact that an emphasis on data will improve the unscientific, speculation-based punditry backed by many of Silver’s critics. At the moment traditional journalists understand and use data in their stories, but they don’t give it the authority to reject unsubstantiated claims. The result is a lot of he-said she-said bullshit. Giving data more authority will make it the norm to reject unsubstantiated claims, and the result will be statements and talking points that contain a higher degree of truth.

For example, check out Wednesday’s Washington Post article about the Romney campaign’s insistence that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota are in play. The story is full of bullshit claims, and although many are challenged by the writers, the claims are essentially left standing as legitimate enough to have inspired the article in the first place.

The fact that Romney’s campaign has put some money into ads in Minnesota and now Pennsylvania doesn’t say a lot so far, and the fact that his campaign has not put money into ads in Michigan may say more about the campaign’s assessment of the electoral map.

Still, Romney advisers said the action in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan showed that Republicans are expanding the electoral map and have more options to get to 270 electoral votes.

“I think we’re in a great position to win,” Romney senior adviser Russ Schriefer told reporters during a conference call, citing Republican enthusiasm and the fact that the president is not above 50 percent in recent polls of those states. “Can we win all of them? Probably not,” he added. “Can we win some of them? I think probably so.”

Right off the bat we basically have the reporters admitting there is nothing to support the talking points on which the story is based, but the story still exists because the absence of supporting data isn’t enough. I understand this is the Washington Post, and that the article is supposed to be about what the campaigns are saying rather than some great effort to educate the electorate. But in a more Silver-esque world the reporters respond to these talking points by saying, “Bullshit. Give me something real.” The result is a story with more truth and less he-said she-said vacuousness.

But wait, it gets worse:

Polls have tightened in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Republicans cite that as evidence that the momentum has shifted toward Romney and that the challenger is in a position to overtake the incumbent in states that once appeared off the boards…

We have a vague notion of “polls tightening,” but no specifics or context. If specifics were given, they would be that Romney remains worse than a 20-1 underdog in those states. Again, in a world where data has authority  the response from reporters is, “Bullshit. Give me real evidence you have a chance in those states or you don’t get an article extolling the confidence of the campaign.” The result is marginally more truth.

More on Pennsylvania:

Christopher Nicholas, a former GOP consultant who is now political director for the Pennsylvania Business Council, said of Romney: “He’s doing less poorly in Philadelphia suburbs than a basic Republican has, and the president is collapsing in the southwest.”

“The lead here is four or five [percentage points], and I don’t think one week of TV is going to alter that,” said former governor Edward G. Rendell (D). He also indicated that Obama has a significantly larger get-out-the-vote operation than Romney does.

Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, countered by telling reporters that Romney’s ground operation is “incredibly strong” in Pennsylvania and has been in place “since day one” of the campaign.

The final paragraph illustrates the Silver vs. Tradition battle. An operative says the GOP ground game is strong but data says Pennsylvania has almost no chance of turning red. The traditionalist will always include the point about the ground game, but the statistician say there’s no way the ground game can make up for the polling gap and so talking about the state is pointless. Of course the traditionalist knows this, but they still can’t force themselves to ignore a juicy quote about a ground game. In a world where data has authority, that won’t happen because the reporter will hold out for real information.

On to Minnesota:

Romney, however, has had scant presence in the state, leading analysts to question whether this is all a head fake by the GOP. “Romney has absolutely no ground game [in Minnesota],” said one outside Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid in assessing the race. “I can’t imagine it’s real.”

Others familiar with Minnesota politics, on both sides of the aisle, said that while Romney remains slightly behind in the state, the race is tighter, making it a smart move for the Republican candidate to invest some of his extensive resources there.

They pointed to a recent Minneapolis Star-Tribune poll conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research that showed Obama ahead by only three points, within the margin of error, and said Romney is doing well among the independent voters who tend to decide elections in Minnesota.

More unsubstantiated claims, followed by the citation of a single poll to prove a point — a huge no-no. Once again we get the idea that the reporters know this is bullshit, but they still can’t keep themselves from writing it.

The article saves its greatest contradiction for last:

In the past three elections, Democratic nominees have gotten a higher percentage of the vote in those states than nationally. But if the national polls are showing a dead heat, as most of them do right now, it’s expected that such states as Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Minnesota will show relatively closer contests than four years ago…

That doesn’t mean the balance has shifted to Romney in those states, which is why Romney advisers stopped short of predicting victory. It only means that if the national numbers show the race essentially tied or with one candidate ahead by a point, these states aren’t going to show the president ahead by seven or eight or nine points. If Romney were to win a big victory in the popular vote, he could carry one or more of these states.

It’s another utter refutation of the significance of the story. These three states don’t matter because if Romney manages to win them he’ll already have won the election. A quick glance at any respectable model shows this to be the case. The reporters know this the be the case. Yet they still write the article and prop up the idea that the three states have increasing significance!

What’s so interesting about the whole Silver kerfuffle is that traditional political reporters more or less agree with everything he says. They even include the implications of his model in their stories. Yet for some reason they refuse to give statistical analysis any kind of authority. It’s just another voice in a world of he-said she-said journalism. What we need is for it to become more than that.

The big fear is that if numbers become an authority everything else will disappear, but that fear is unsubstantiated. What will happen is that claims not supported by numbers will lose their luster, and they will be replaced by more genuine claims. Pundits will still have bullshit talking points on which to speculate, but that bullshit will be significantly less bullshitty.

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