A novelist’s view of the campaign
A few weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about whether polls for the presidential race were slanted toward the Democratic side. Nate Silver has done a better job of demolishing these claims than I ever could, although it’s worth pointing out that, on its face, the allegation never made sense: if the media were really lining up behind Obama, it’s unclear what they’d have to gain by artificially boosting his numbers, which would only encourage complacency and decrease turnout. (That said, if the polls had been running in the other direction, I’m sure we’d see similar accusations of bias from the left, as we did in 2004.) It’s also important to note that while members of the media, as individuals, may skew more liberal than otherwise—for the same reasons that such people tend to be disproportionately drawn to careers in journalism and the arts—their professional and collective decisions arise from a different set of impulses. The men and women who cover the news, like the rest of us, tend to be motivated by a complicated combination of ambition, pragmatism, time constraints, and the professional conservatism that comes from working in an industry that is still trying to figure out its own business model.
This just means that reporters, especially on the political side, essentially tell stories for a living. More than most kinds of reporting, covering a campaign is something like writing a novel: while most journalism focuses on the recent past or, at most, the immediate present, political reporting is inevitably about one particular date in the future. It’s about constructing hypothetical situations, mapping out possible developments, and marshaling evidence that can inherently be interpreted in multiple ways—which is almost a form of highly specialized speculative fiction. But apart from its predictive tendencies, political journalism is also inclined to look for dramatic narratives. A campaign in which one candidate is consistently ahead in crucial polls over the course of many months is the equivalent of a novel in which the stakes never change. As a result, the media is generally predisposed to depict the race as being closer than it actually is. This is why countless news stories over the past few months have referred to the presidential race as “virtually tied,” even when swing states told a different story. A close race means increased voter engagement, more clicks, and a greater appearance of balance. And emphasizing one number over another is a storytelling choice.
Of course, the campaigns are telling stories too, and both sides of this year’s election have their share of novelistic sensibilities. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s campaign manager, has written a novel and television scripts and served as a consultant for The Ides of March, and as I’ve mentioned before, Obama himself once seriously considered becoming a novelist. And where it counts, Obama hasn’t changed: when Michael Lewis writes, in his excellent Vanity Fair profile, of “the president sitting down and trying to persuade himself to think or feel a certain way first,” the temperament he’s describing is fundamentally a novelistic one. I suspect, for instance, that Obama approached Wednesday’s debate as a writer might approach a transitional chapter in a novel. A campaign, like any extended narrative, can’t consist entirely of high points: you need to carefully select the moments when you bring out your maximum firepower. I have a hunch that Obama looked at the situation and concluded, correctly, that Romney was a stronger debater; that the topic of the debate, domestic policy, was his own weakest selling point; and that the media narrative was predisposed to give Romney a victory to maintain the suspense. Not surprisingly, he decided to play it safe, much as a writer might decide to conserve his powder for more important scenes to come.
The trouble is that a campaign, like a novel, tends to be judged by its audience moment to moment, and unlike readers, we can’t move on right away to the next chapter. Viewed objectively, this wasn’t a very interesting debate—Romney’s Big Bird quip was the only memorable line of the night—but for twenty-four hours, it was all anyone wanted to talk about, which is like reviewing a novel based only on a single scene. And for the Romney campaign, clearly, this wasn’t a transitional chapter, but something like the second turning point in a screenplay, in which the setbacks of the previous section are clarified and transcended in advance of the crucial third act. In that respect, Romney did a very good job—although I can’t help but be skeptical of the storytelling instincts of a man whose favorite novel is Battlefield Earth. At every moment, we’re watching two different stories being written in parallel, in real time, and nobody knows what the ending will be. But in politics, as in fiction, it comes down to the long game. As David Mamet says, “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around again in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.” Or, in this case, on Pennsylvania Avenue.