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The Seven Deadly Sins of Political Punditry

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It’s high season for political punditry.   Pundits offer their take on who is ahead or behind and what every insignificant event or utterance means.  But before anyone gets too excited over what they spin,  their observations should be taken with a grain of salt because more often than not their analysis is faulty, corrupted by the seven deadly sins of political punditry.  What are these seven sins?

Confirmation Bias. 

People seek out information that confirms their pre-existing political biases and ignores that which contradicts it.  We surf the web and find memes which confirm what we already know to be the truth and repost and send to others.  One great example–the legendary meme that quotes Donald Trump in  a 1998 People Magazine story saying “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”  To my Democrat friends the meme must be true but alas it is fake and there is no such story.

Cognitive Dissonance. 

Cognitive dissonance refers to the process of having or holding contradictory beliefs and the resulting stress in tying to reconcile and act upon them.  Look at how GOP presidentialswingcandidates and consultants put their best face on in supporting Trump, twisting over issues such as the recent controversy involving his attack on the Khans.  Or how liberals can embrace Clinton even though she supports the death penalty, free trade, and a muscular foreign policy.  One tool to relieve the pressures of cognitive dissonance is by appeal to confirmation bias–simply dismissing contradictory data or evidence.

Making Too Much Deal About the Polls. 

There are lots of reasons to question the infatuation of pundits with polls and how too much of a fuss is made over statistically  insignificant changes in their results.  Post RNC and DNC, a lot of noise was made in  terms of convention bumps and who was in the lead.  Historically presidential candidates get convention bumps but after a couple of weeks it fades.  No news here.  Pundits  nonetheless angst over them, especially when they pay for them and make them their main news story, such as what CNN has done recently.

Finally, aggregate public opinion polls in presidential races are meaningless–remember it is not the popular but the electoral vote that determines the president.  The race for the presidency is really 51 separate elections, of which only about ten really matter because that is how few swing states there are.

Misuse of Statistics and Selective Quotations. 

Mark Twain once said there are three kinds of falsehoods–lies, damn lies, and statistics.  Political punditry excels in th art of creative lying with statistics.  Candidates do it by only quoting those statistics that support their views, ignoring those which do not.    They also understand that most people are confused by statistics, don’t know the truth, or simply will not bother checking the sources of claims made.

Pundits do the same, especially on all the cable talk shows. Look too at Facebook and the social media.  There is literally very little posted that anyone can really trust.  People repost stuff with full knowledge and reliance upon the belief no one will every check to see if facts are true–such as the Trump meme noted above. This is also the case with posting stories long after they were originally published and now out of context, conveying the impression that it is new when it fact it is out of date or simply wrong now.

Confusing Short and Long Terms Horizons. 

What is true or news today may not be true on election day let alone tomorrow.  The Trump-Khan controversy is a great example.  Yes, it is great news and copy today buts its longer term impact is unclear.  Polls that reflect convention bumps, as noted above, fade, and one should not read too much into short term fluctuations.   Many pundits love to declare events as game changers.   Rarely do we see something as a game changer when it happens and it may take a long time to appreciate what really matters in a campaign.

Thinking what Happens Between Boston and Washington is all that Matters. 

Richard Nixon was famous for asking whether it will play in Peoria.  His point was that what the pundits think is important within the Boston to DC corridor may simply not matter to folks in the rest of the country.  Pundits are too obsessed with inside baseball, thinking that what matters to them and their friends is what matters to the rest of the country. Pundits simply talk to one another.  Watch CNN, MSNBC, and FOX.  They have the same cadre of insiders talking to insiders, predictably saying what you think they would.

Reacting to the Reaction.

Finally, the inside baseball problem of thinking only what happens between Boston and Washington is closely related to the problem of reacting to the reaction, or to unverified rumors.  Too much punditry is about one pundit saying something and then others react to that statement and then others react to that reaction.  At some point pundity is not about real politics but instead is a game of reporting on who pundited about what.  Punditry becomes so wrapped up in itself that it defines its own truth and logic–punditry for the sake of punditry.

So there you have it–the seven deadly sins of punditry.  The next time you see a post on social media or a comment by a pundit on television or elsewhere watch to see how many of these sins they commit.

David Schultz, Professor in the Department of Political Science at Hamline University and editor of the Journal of Public Affairs Education (JPAE). His latest book is Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.

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