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Column: Romney's gaffes don't matter

Ben Levin

Sept. 24, 2012

The opinions expressed by The Maneater columnists do not represent the opinions of The Maneater editorial board.

Good news, aspiring college politicos! From the gray cocoon of Herman Cain to the beautiful butterfly that is Mitt Romney, our election has evolved. With only 42 days until the election, things finally have begun to ascend into relevancy. Since media coverage is about to start to actually matter, I thought I’d take this space and explain the two main ways the media are about to screw up campaign coverage.

One thing the media almost gets right: their focus on polling. Polls are, after all, our best tool for predicting outcomes in specific states and in the nation at large. Yet the media misses something important, and they miss it in a way that ends up driving news coverage. They forget polls only matter in the aggregate.

Consider this: About 30 new polls are released every day. Each one is conducted at about a 95 percent confidence interval — so 5 percent of the time, they’ll be absolutely wrong. What this means is even though every single poll is most likely correct, at least one of them each day is almost certainly wrong! And this unlucky poll, whether it shows Romney up by seven in Pennsylvania or Obama down by five in Wisconsin, is going to grab the attention. It will be hailed by the talking heads as proof of the “momentum shift” we’ve been waiting for. Campaigns will form reactions, and damage will be controlled. It will all be a big waste of time. Pay attention to poll averages — look for trends across polling firms and across time. But that game-changing shock poll that just sent Rush Limbaugh into explosive climax? Safer to ignore it.

Perhaps the media can be forgiven for their tendency to latch onto the outlying poll. Less excusable, though, is their neurotic obsession with “the gaffe.” We’ve all seen ‘em — that (supposed) misstatement that (finally) reveals the true contents of a candidate’s soul. Gaffe, ye politicians, and be judged. Romney recently has come under fire for calling 47 percent of Americans “dependents.” In 2008, Obama was lambasted for accusing rural Pennsylvanians of “clinging to their guns and religion.” The gaffes have a lot in common. Both statements confirmed the worst stereotypes about the candidates. Both statements were heralded by their opponents as the beginning of the end for their respective campaigns.

You know what else the statements had in common? Zero noticeable effect on the eventual outcome. For all that hullabaloo and all the wasted breath, Romney’s 47 percent comment has gone completely unnoticed in the national and state polling. What does it mean when a story dominating the cable network and Twitterverse for a week couldn’t even budge the polling?

What it means is that high-information, undecided, independent voters — the only kind of voters open to being swayed by gaffes and their coverage — simply do not exist. At least, they don’t exist in enough quantity to make a difference. The consumers of gaffe-centric media are exactly the kind of people who will not be persuaded by the gaffes themselves. Why, then, does the media obsess over them? Why won’t the media focus on the parts of our elections that actually matter?

Because the reality is that elections are boring. They are virtually always decided by turnout of voters who are not open to persuasion, people who will vote for one party over another regardless of the particulars. But this is a boring truth. It does not lend itself to grand narratives or great television. Gaffes, on the other hand, are made to spin the news cycle. Who cares if they’re irrelevant? They’re empty, digestible and humanizing. They let us feel outrage without understanding nuance. Gaffes are the empty calories of campaign season, and our media have become happy to oblige us of our addiction. We deserve better.

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