By Chez Pazienza: I love this tweet from polling savante Nate Silver. It really says it all.
Last week I wrote a column for this site that took a look at the first presidential debate and contemplated its impact on the overall race for the White House. My main point was that by hitting Barack Obama hard and being generally fiery in his delivery -- and completely putting aside content, the fact that he spent most of the debate lying through his teeth -- Mitt Romney accomplished something that had the potential to change the race in a seismic way. I wasn't saying that Romney's performance was so stellar, or Obama's so anemic, that it would be fair for the future of the entire campaign to hinge on that one night in Denver; I was simply acknowledging an unfortunate fact about the way we as a society think and react when faced with a sudden bombardment of media stimuli.
My point was that by Romney doing what he did -- and Obama not doing what he should have -- the media narrative was effectively changed in an instant. Suddenly Romney had something he didn't have before, not at any point in his campaign up to that point. He had hype. And like it or not, Americans are suckers for hype.
In discussing this topic on the podcast I do with him, Bob Cesca wondered whether a sudden traditional media embrace of Romney and a mostly social media freak-out on the left would really change the dynamic of the campaign given that most voters by this point have already made up their minds -- or at least should have. My response: absolutely it could, and it had the potential to be at least temporarily devastating for the Obama camp. It's now Wednesday and following a new round of polling, well, I hate to say I told you so.
I can't stress enough how much the old rules don't apply anymore when it comes to things like presidential politics, which have really become nothing more than another servant of pop culture. By all accounts, Romney shouldn't have been able to upend even a few polls so swiftly and assuredly all because of one debate "victory," but as I said last week, we're not dealing with the kind of political climate we've had for decades -- we're now dealing with one entirely at the whim of an insanely, dizzyingly rapid-fire media culture, one in which each person's knee-jerk reaction can be shot out of a Twitter cannon and coalesce with others until it creates an echo chamber and an overarching public narrative in a matter of hours.
The immediate consensus last Thursday night was that Romney had cold-cocked a listless Obama. Twitter and Facebook erupted. Chris Matthews lost his mind live on the air. Fox News collectively came in its pants. Stories quickly followed that slammed the president for submitting to Romney; that contemplated what had gone wrong; that figuratively tried to shake a sleeping Obama awake by offering advice on what he had to do to bounce back. The storyline began writing itself.
And here's the thing: People are fucking stupid. They're easily led along. Americans especially love a winner and abhor a loser; it's hard-wired into our psychology. Those who may have been sitting on the sidelines or who had never seen Mitt Romney as president material suddenly looked at him in a new light, all because everyone -- whether on TV or at 140-characters at a time -- was saying that he'd stood on the stage with the leader of the free world and had taken it to him. It was a game-changer because so many people with a media outlet, whether a giant corporate news megaphone or an internet connection, were saying it was a game-changer. It became, in an instant, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The cable hacks finally got the kind of down-to-the-wire horse race they salivate over, simply by wishing it into existence, and the rest of us fed into it and fed off of it until the possibility of Romney suddenly pulling a shocking upset out of his ass became a reality.
Public opinion? The polls? They do nothing now but reflect the prevailing media narrative. They're attached to it in a gruesomely ouroborial fashion, mouth on tail. We're slaves to -- and victims of -- the cacophony created by so much reflexive media output.
Case in point: Andrew Sullivan sees Romney rising in the polls. He freaks the hell out and bangs out a blistering column lamenting the end of the Obama presidency. It gets circulated all over the place and adds more fuel to the fire, becoming part of the national storyline. This is how it works.
This is why, as Nate Silver says, we can see the fortunes for a political candidate go from one end of the spectrum to the other, according to the online pulse of the nation, in a matter of three hours.
But as I said last week, things can change again just as quickly. Go ahead -- turn on the vice-presidential debate on Thursday night. Keep Twitter open at the same time. About five minutes into the thing, begin counting, "3... 2... 1..."