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Don't believe election gossip

Don’t believe what you read!!

A strange admonition with which to begin an article in a newspaper, but much of the gossip that passes for post-election analysis is way off the mark.

Partly that is because, in trying to analyze what happened in the campaign, journalists are attempting to reconstruct a complex reality based on a few sources, most of whom do not even know whether they know the whole story, let alone all the content of that story. Often it comes out wrong.Don’t believe what you read!!

A strange admonition with which to begin an article in a newspaper, but much of the gossip that passes for post-election analysis is way off the mark.

Partly that is because, in trying to analyze what happened in the campaign, journalists are attempting to reconstruct a complex reality based on a few sources, most of whom do not even know whether they know the whole story, let alone all the content of that story. Often it comes out wrong.

There is, though, a deeper and more important reason not to believe much of what you read about this election. It stems from a topic I have addressed before — the fundamental attribution error.

The fundamental attribution error is a central fact of psychological life that traps us all. In developing explanations, we inaccurately give more weight to people than to situations.

Part of a journalist’s job is to tell a story. People make interesting stories. Situations do not. So journalists, like the rest of us, fall prey to the fundamental attribution error.

Accounts that give primacy of explanatory place to the machinations of campaign advisers, for good or ill, are inherently misleading because they underweight the power of the situational. Consultants like to think that electoral outcomes are in control. Guided by the fundamental attribution error, journalists conspire with us in that conceit. While what we do can matter at the margin, circumstances carry the greatest weight.

What situational factors mattered in this election? I will explore some in forthcoming columns, but let me mention a few.

Incumbents have an advantage. Since World War II, incumbent presidents have run for reelection nine times; only a third were defeated. One of the three was the unelected Gerald Ford. Indeed, only two challengers to incumbents garnered a higher percentage of the vote than John Kerry’s 48 percent. Jimmy Carter bested Ford with 50.1 percent. Ronald Reagan in turn beat Carter with 50.8 percent. When Bill Clinton wrested the presidency away from Bush’s father, he received 43 percent of the vote. The power of incumbency is one of those situational factors that is underdiscussed.

So is the economy. The number of voters giving the economy positive ratings going into Election ’04 was some 25 points higher than it was the last time an incumbent president was defeated. The ABC/Money magazine consumer-confidence rating hit a nine-month high just before the election and rested above its 18-year average. We found out after the election that more jobs were created in October than in any month since March.

That is not to say that George Bush has created a strong economy. He hasn’t. It is to say that the level of economic pain was not commensurate with what has been historically necessary to defeat an incumbent. But this is inherently less interesting than the human drama to which most journalistic accounts treat us.

My purpose here is not to detail all the situational factors that mattered, nor to excuse real mistakes we made, but merely provide some corrective for the fundamental attribution error.

Though these words are of recent vintage, the concept is not. Some 3,000 years ago, the biblical writer Ecclesiastes, traditionally identified as King Solomon, wrote, “The race is not always to the swift, nor victory in battle to the brave. Bread is not always won by the wise, nor favor by the learned. … For time and chance affect them all.”

My hat is off to my swift, brave, intelligent and learned colleagues on the Kerry campaign and most especially to our leader, John Kerry, who embodied those traits and the greatness of this nation.

Time and chance, circumstances and situations, affect us all.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) this year.