The idea that what determines elections is more about fundamentals (the economy, the partisan make-up of the electorate) than campaigns and spin has gotten quite a boost over the past several years, thanks largely to Nate Silver and others. But the need to file stories about personalities and gaffes is still great, and so there is a corresponding lag between what we know about politics and the way politics is covered in the media. Nowhere has this been more clearly visible than in the case of Wendy Davis. She has some remarkable political talents, and some serious shortcomings, but none of these things explain why she is losing.
Davis is running for governor in Texas and is a relatively liberal Democrat. With merely those bits of information we could place her odds of winning at a very low number. And yet look no further than Manny Fernandez's in-depth piece on Davis's campaign in Sunday's New York Times. Titled "For Wendy Davis, Filibuster Goes Only So Far in Race To Be Governor of Texas," Fernandez aims to explain why Davis is trailing by double digits in recent polls. In doing so, he fails entirely to mention those "fundamentals," and merely writes a story about minor campaign mistakes. We read of consultants who have departed. We learn of her scorn for a fellow Democrat. We even hear, yes, that her campaign failed to publicize the fact that, at an event, she was wearing the same shoes as she did during her famous filibuster. (That must have lost her at least two votes.) Then there are the mentions of her "tame" speeches, and her decision, deemed unfortunate, to hand over her campaign to a Washington operative. (If Davis were ahead, this would be seen as a sign that she understands how politics really works.)
At the very end of the piece, Fernandez finally mentions the elephant in the room: She is running in Texas! And how does he choose to note this unfortunate—at least for Democrats—fact?
“The problem is, and I talked about it in 2006, and I’m seeing a lot of it this time as well — we have become a defeatist party because of what has been happening since the ’90s,” said Mr. Bell, a Houston lawyer who is supporting Ms. Davis. “That becomes a mind-set, and it’s a very difficult mind-set to break.”
So the problem is not that Democrats have a huge amount of trouble winning in Texas because the state is overwhelmingly Republican. The problem is their "defeatist mindset," whatever that means in practice. Another piece on Davis's campaign, from the AP, also focuses on her campaign skills and campaign staff, and features worried Davis fans speculating about Davis's hiring of a new campaign manager. (They are clearly reading too many stories like Fernandez's.)
It's probably true that Davis has made missteps, and the attacks on her life story may have hurt a bit around the edges. But Democrats were never going to win by running a generic candidate in Texas, and so someone with potentially huge upsides (which in Davis's case includes an amazing ability to fundraise) was probably the only hope, however slim, for victory.
The best critique of the poll-centric, fundamentals-based coverage of politics is that it ignores issues that, although they may not matter in campaigns, do matter in the lives of voters. The best possible result of the data revolution, then, would be that it makes daily political coverage, filled as it is with minor errors and inner-campaign squabbling, look increasingly unimportant. In short, one hopes that Nate Silver and his ilk will allow political reporters to spend less time on campaign drama and more time on issues.