February 1, 2008

The media's infatuation with "momentum"

It's a little puzzling why the political press is always in such a rush to hurry along the nomination process, to declare various candidates dead and to designate others as sure things. After all, it's been January until a few hours ago. And even in this ridiculously front-loaded primary season, only 10% of the GOP delegates and 4% of the Democratic delegates have been awarded. Further, we're only four days away from Super Tuesday, when 23 states hold primaries, so you might think they'd wait until then. After all, this is the political press' quadrennial moment in the spotlight, so why would they want to declare it over?

But the press has continued to obsess over momentum, even though there hasn't been much on display. Four years ago, for example, the press rushed to declare Howard Dean dead and John Kerry the electable Democrat, and the Democratic voters went along with the storyline. So, how'd that work out for them? This year, voters haven't played along, but the press keeps trying to end the nomination process ASAP.

Partly, this momentum infatuation is due to the media's love of a narrative. But it also is driven by journalists' incentive structures. They get rewarded for making predictions, but aren't penalized for making wrong predictions.

I just have the wrong personality for this profession. I don't make many predictions (at least not the kind of predictions that people want to hear -- but I do make plenty of predictions that people find depressing and boring) because I hate being wrong about anything. For example, it was recently proven that one section of an article I wrote seven years ago was wrong. I wrote in 2000: "So, at this point, allegations [of steroid use] against [sprinter] Marion Jones remain mostly guilt-by-association." Ever since she confessed, it's eaten away at me that I was wrong about that.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

19 comments:

Reader said...

Four years ago, for example, the press rushed to declare Howard Dean dead and John Kerry the electable Democrat, and the Democratic voters went along with the storyline.


Right, after the allegedly horrendous "Dean scream". Was I the only person who thought that was not a big deal at all, but that the media was just desperate for anything they could latch onto to sink Dean's campaign?

John S. Bolton said...

There's always post-diction, speaking of which, the NYT p.A17 appears to be using the Sailer analysis of the 2004 election. 'from the housing market to the maternity ward' by John Leland is using less-predictive general population numbers, but he associates high fertility states with Republican voting, and low-fertility states with democratic voting, and ties it in to housing.

Ralph Phelan said...

But it also is driven by journalists' incentive structures. They get rewarded for making predictions, but aren't penalized for making wrong predictions.


Lose the "also". People respond to incentives. Duh.

A very small fraction of what one reads in a newspaper is information one needs in order to make decisions that affect one's life: stock listings and a small fraction of other business news, local news like reports on what one's city's zoning board is getting up to ... what else?

Some of the rest has a very slight effect on votes in national elections - not exactly the most important decision in anyone's life - but most of it has no effect on behavior at all. I would say that most news-consuming behavior is best classified as "entertainment."

As you commented in your linked post:

But the point is that, unlike the sunset forecast, these predictions are interesting, as brainless as they are.

Which is why the entertainment professionals in the news media produce so many such stories.

Nothing puzzling at all about it.

Half Sigma said...

Unfortunately, the MSM is pronouncing McCain as the winner of the Republican nomination, even though the most votes he has ever had in a primary is 37%, and he lost in several states.

Anonymous said...

Its weird that Obamas white support sems to be driven by younger white men;yes,they hate Hillary--thank God! but is Barry any better? He tells the Latinos that he is their ally in the struggle for equality. Oh yeah,that old struggle for equality,gotta love it! But Barry is the latino's ally against... WHO,zactly????

meathead said...

"Partly, this momentum infatuation is due to the media's love of a narrative. But it also is driven by journalists' incentive structures. They get rewarded for making predictions, but aren't penalized for making wrong predictions."

In this case, they get to make predictions and in doing so significantly increase the chances that they are right (by showering the winner who now has the magical momentum with positive coverage which, no surprise, in turn tends to cause that candidate's numbers to rise - a self-fulfilling prophecy).

Dutch Boy said...

Covering momentum means they don't have to cover issues. Many of them are ignoramuses who wouldn't know an issue from a sour apple; the more sophisticated realize that it wouldn't do to arouse the masses by discussing matters of substance - they might begin to pay attention to the whole process and who knows where that might lead?

Ralph Phelan said...

the more sophisticated realize that it wouldn't do to arouse the masses by discussing matters of substance

Nah, arousing the masses would produce higher ratings, at least in the short term. Duscussing matters of substance bores the masses. Predictions, horse race stories and the "Obama Snubs Hillary" story at least have some chance of pulling decent numbers when put up against Britney Spears' latest meltdown.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Steve Sailer: It's a little puzzling why the political press is always in such a rush to hurry along the nomination process, to declare various candidates dead and to designate others as sure things.

Uh, because they're trying to anoint the winners?

Right now, with McAmnesty -vs- Obama or Hillary, they're guaranteed that a liberal will be sworn in on January 20, 2009.

Ergo it is imperative to close the deal as soon as possible, and lock in the candidates.

Every day that e.g. Romney stays alive lessens the absolute certainty of their desired outcome.

Robert said...

The media is made up of people who, in gerneral, are not any more intellegent than average. There may be a few smart reporters and a few dumb but most are average just like the average member of the public. If so and so reports that a candidate has done something and it gets picked up by a few more newspapers then a trend may start where reporters then all rush to cover the story, getting the candidate more attention. Then polls are taken showing that that candidate has moved up, but the polls are really showing that the candidate just got more attention. The news media jumps on the bandwagon and the bias is thrown more to that candidate. The internet has been a way around this for some, such as Ron Paul, but I think that the media in general just has a herd mentality. A few reporters may start the stampede but the others just follow along.

Dutch Boy said...

I mean issues as in "the country is broke and what are you going to do about it?" I've seen little evidence that people in large numbers are aware of the dire economic straits we're in. They wouldn't get any such notion from following the standard corporate news vendors.

Anonymous said...

dutch boy people are well aware that prices are going up while their wages are static or going down. It's why Starbucks is in trouble because people can't buy $4 lattes every day.

Starbucks is going to sell $1 coffee with free refills. People understand what that means.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Dutch Boy: I mean issues as in "the country is broke and what are you going to do about it?" I've seen little evidence that people in large numbers are aware of the dire economic straits we're in.

There aren't any "policy" prescriptions to fix the demographic collapse we are in now.

It takes about 25 to 30 years to breed, nurture, educate, and train a productive member of society.

But politicians think in maybe 3 month or 6 month increments, at most.

Besides, it's basically too late now to start breeding children solely for the purpose of supporting the Boomers in their retirement, because the Boomers are already too close to retirement [i.e. the time to make the babies to support the Boomers in their retirement was back in the 1970's & 1980's, not today].

Between trying to support the demographic bulge of the Boomers [see Tables 8 & 9 of the Section 1 of the Statistical Abstract] on the one hand, and, on the other hand, having to fork out $19,588 per person to about half of their compatriots, there just isn't any way that the productive workers of 2020 will be able to keep afloat all the Ponzi schemes which the government is running.

Say hello to social chaos - the best outcome will probably be a peaceful secession, but it could very well degenerate into Civil War.

Rosamund said...

I think that the reader who said the MSM wants to anoint a leader is right on, but you see this speculation among people of all political persuasions and, I admit, I love them. Why? Political elections are sports for nerds, albeit with real world consequences, and the prognostications are part of the game. I can't answer why some people are bad at comprehension and prediction and can still retain their positions, however.

Half Sigma said...

lucius vorenus: "
Say hello to social chaos - the best outcome will probably be a peaceful secession, but it could very well degenerate into Civil War."


I presume that our Congress will eventually decide to limit Social Security payouts to a certain affordable percentage of GDP once it becomes too expensive.

Retirement will be slightly less cushy, but no one will starve to death, and the country won't collapse.

Lucius Vorenus said...

Half Sigma: I presume that our Congress will eventually decide to limit Social Security payouts to a certain affordable percentage of GDP once it becomes too expensive.

In and of itself, it will take something akin to a Civil War to limit FICA & Medicare.

And even if such a Civil War could be waged successfully*, it still wouldn't address the problem of what to do with the half of the ostensibly "productive" portion of the population which will actually be taking $19,588 per person per year more out of the till than they put in.

Look, the numbers just don't add up, and they can't be made to add up.

Prepare accordingly.

*PS: Remember, in a demos kratia, the people vote on whether or not to receive their benefits, and, circa 2020, there will be more people receiving the benefits than there will be people paying for the benefits.

Which is to say: How do you cut entitlements in an environment wherein there are more people entitled to the benefits [and presumably voting for the taxation to provide the benefits] than there are [productive] people paying the taxes to support the benefits [and presumably voting against that taxation]?

Here I'd direct you to Table 8 [page 11] and Table 9 [pages 12 & 13] of Section 1 of the Abstract:

2008 Statistical Abstract of the United States, Section 1, Population
WARNING: PDF DOCUMENT
census.gov

The Caucasian population peaked during the Baby Boom at about 16M per 5 years, and has now collapsed to 11M per 5 years.

Similarly, the Asian population peaked at around 1.2M per 5 years, and has now collapsed to a mere 800K per 5 years.

And those are your productive workers come 2020:

11M Caucasians + 800K Asians = 11.8M per 5 year increment

Everything else [NAMs & retired Boomers] is dead weight.

green mamba said...

Political elections are sports for nerds

Bingo. The 24/7 discussion of election strategy parallels the ongoing discussion of the Superbowl. Both cases point to a culture with too much time on its hands.

green mamba said...

I should hasten to add thatI've gotten caught up in both ongoing media discussions (about elections and the Superbowl) and have been disappointed Steve hasn't thrown out more opinions on the former. The last round of debates was fairly lively and instructive. You really must get cable, Steve.

William said...

Right now, with McAmnesty -vs- Obama or Hillary, they're guaranteed that a liberal will be sworn in on January 20, 2009.

Good. Every new decade seems to bring a recession, and given all the other problems we're facing it's probably best to let the liberals take the blame for the oncoming problems. Let them show the voters that they have no ideas more politically palatable than the Chamber of Commerce Republicans and then perhaps a real politician can step in in 4 years.