Frame Game

Burnt Toast

I blew it.

Three months ago in this column, I asked why, in a time of peace and prosperity, voters weren’t rallying  behind the incumbent presidential party. Would the good times carry Al Gore to victory over George W. Bush? “I don’t know, and neither do you,” I concluded. “There are no absolute laws in politics or any other social science. Laws operate only within certain parameters and under certain conditions. Those parameters and conditions, in turn, are subject to human intervention.”

A month later, with Gore flying high in the polls, I forgot that lesson. In a column titled “Why Bush Is Toast,” I wrote, “The numbers are moving toward Gore because fundamental dynamics tilt the election in his favor. The only question has been how far those dynamics would carry him. Now that he has passed Bush, the race is over. … Stick a fork in [Bush]. He’s done.”

Today, as election officials recount the ballots in Florida, Bush’s fate remains in doubt. But one thing is clear: My record as an election prognosticator is cooked. It’s just as well. Since its inception, this column has tried to do two things. One is to get outside the box of conventional punditry and explain how broad, hidden biases—not just obvious ideological biases—skew the way we think about current events. The other is to participate in that same punditry. The first enterprise has always been more distinctive and valuable to readers than the second. Most of us pundits suspect we’re no better at predicting election results than the average intelligent person is. In my case, there’s now proof. But the lesson goes both ways: I ought to spend less time playing the pundit game and more time deconstructing it. With that in mind, let’s look at how I screwed up.

1. Overlooked factors. Any theory that tries to predict human behavior on the basis of a few variables is incomplete. When other factors remain dormant or cancel out, the theory appears to work, as the simplistic models developed by academic forecasters have done in some recent elections. But as soon as the excluded factors come back into play, the theory fails. The academic models err because they rely almost exclusively on two variables: economic data and poll ratings. My theory, which incorporated six factors, was more complex, but not complex enough.

The factors I included were 1) peace and prosperity; 2) an “issue terrain” favorable to Gore; 3) the imbalance of negative information about the candidates (voters knew more about Gore’s record and flaws than about Bush’s); 4) the “moral expectations game” (voters had already factored Gore’s ethical liabilities into their evaluations); 5) collateral damage (Bush couldn’t drive up Gore’s negative ratings without driving up his own); and 6) the Bush campaign’s inferior political judgment.

What’s notable, in retrospect, is what this theory didn’t include. Some missing factors that turned out to be very important—principally, doubts about Bush’s intelligence and experience—played to Gore’s advantage. But others decisively helped Bush. My theory took no account of ideology, which Bush exploited to reframe the election in late September. His emphasis on trusting people rather than trusting government drove a key wedge between Gore and many swing voters. Other factors I omitted—Republican and Democratic turnout efforts, for example—canceled each other out. I neglected to factor in Gore’s superiority as a debater, but I also overlooked his annoying debating style. The mutual cancellation of these factors led to the same result as if my theory were correct. But that was sheer coincidence.

2. Human error. Objective factors such as economic growth don’t magically translate into votes. They have to be communicated. That was the point of my Aug. 15 column:

The law’s basic formulation—”In a time of peace and prosperity, voters will re-elect the party in power”—assumes at least three conditions. First, voters must remember a time of war or economic difficulty. Otherwise, they won’t be able to identify, in relative terms, a time of peace and prosperity. Second, they must believe that politicians can significantly affect the likelihood of peace or prosperity. Otherwise, they won’t believe that either party is truly in power. Third, they must think in terms of party. Otherwise, when the incumbent party substitutes one nominee for another—even when the new candidate has been vice president under the old one—voters will see nothing to re-elect. … If I fail to see prosperity in its historical context, or to associate it with elections, or to think of Bush and Gore in terms of their parties, I won’t vote the way the theory predicts. Somebody has to step in and make me see things that way.

It’s doubly ironic that I forgot that lesson four weeks later. The premise of this column—and the reason it’s called Frame Game—is that our perceptions, reasoning, and decisions are shaped by the efforts of political players to make us look at things from one perspective rather than another. Absent subjective framing, objective conditions guarantee nothing. The academic forecasters who predicted a Gore victory on the basis of economic growth are now blaming Gore for failing to frame the election as a referendum on the economy. They think this failure on his part is outside the calculus of predicting elections. But it isn’t. By leaving it out of their models, they—and I—predicted the wrong result. Instead of dismissing this inconvenient factor as an anomaly, they ought to incorporate it in their theories.

3. Faulty induction. I based much of my argument on polls that showed significant post-convention progress for Gore on measures such as honesty, management of the economy, and compatibility with voters on key issues. From this evidence, I concluded that Gore had hit bottom before his surge and had “nowhere to go but up.” But as philosophers know, the future doesn’t necessarily resemble the past. And as pollsters know, campaign themes that attract one batch of voters to a candidate don’t necessarily attract the next batch.

Looking back, one could argue that by early September, all of the people who were susceptible to Gore’s message were already in his column, and therefore he had nowhere to go but down. Polls taken between the convention and early September “indicate that Gore’s message moves twice as many voters as Bush’s does,” I wrote. But that present-tense generalization was no more than sleight-of-hand to bridge the logical gap between the past, which polls at that time accurately reflected, and the future, which they didn’t.

Conversely, generalizations that prove true in the long term don’t necessarily apply in the short term. In the “Toast” column, I observed,

Bush, his aides, and the Republican National Committee have made several very stupid decisions, compounded by stubbornness. Bush had positioned himself as the candidate who would “change the tone” and bring a “responsibility era” to Washington, in contrast to Gore’s gamesmanship. But in the past two weeks, Bush has approved two sarcastic personal attack ads, refused to apologize for using a gross vulgarity to describe a reporter at a campaign event, and mounted a preposterous campaign, including a TV ad, to frame Gore as a liar and coward for refusing to ditch the traditional bipartisan debates in favor of a series of smaller venues dictated by Bush. … [S]tupidity and stubbornness are traits. It’s unrealistic to expect a person who has just done a series of stupid and stubborn things to stop being stupid and stubborn.

Was that analysis wrong? Not really. Bush’s near-fatal, time-wasting bravado in the last two weeks of the race—strutting casually through one non-battleground state after another in an attempt to project invincibility—confirms that these self-destructive traits persist. But there was no guarantee that they would dominate the election between mid-September and late October. During that period, the Bush campaign dumped its wacky debate ploy, added meat to Bush’s message, and released the two most creative ads of the year, “Education Recession” and “Trust.” Predicting that Bush’s stupidity and stubbornness would cost him the election was like predicting that a mismanaged company’s stock would fall below a specific level by Nov. 7. The directional forecast was sound, but the time and distance were guesswork.

4. Misleading metaphors. In the “Toast” column, I argued that Gore’s favorable rating had permanently overtaken Bush’s. “On Wall Street, when a stock falls through its ‘support level’—a previous low it hasn’t breached in a long time—analysts downgrade its expected trading range,” I wrote. “Bush’s relative position on the question of how favorably or unfavorably each candidate is viewed has now plunged through that level. … And there’s no sign Bush has hit bottom.”

This was a spectacularly foolish analogy. Five months earlier, I had ridiculed the pseudoscientific insubstantiality of stock-market metaphors such as “bounce,” “bottom,” and “support level.” Any investor “who still doesn’t understand where the ‘support level’ is can find it at the ‘bottom,’ ” I wrote derisively. “The ‘bottom’ is the place where, in retrospect, the market stopped falling.” Sure enough, no sooner did Bush fall through his old support level than he bounced off a new one and passed Gore for good. The metaphor disguised the fact that I had no logical basis for thinking Bush’s downward trend would continue.

5. Missed nuances. I thought Gore couldn’t lose any more votes on the basis of dubious character or credibility. “We’ve already heard all the bad stuff about Gore,” I wrote. “For eight years, the GOP has investigated and exposed his sins with marvelous efficiency. … Everyone knew Gore was Clinton’s henchman and apologist. What they didn’t know was that Gore could be anything else.”

Evidently, I oversimplified the dynamics of Gore’s image. Yes, he escaped Clinton’s shadow by picking Joe Lieberman as his running mate and declaring himself “my own man.” And yes, that escape ruined Bush’s plan to run against “Clinton-Gore.” But having separated himself from Clinton’s ethical troubles, Gore proceeded to exacerbate his own. Many voters who had formed a bad impression of Clinton hadn’t yet formed a bad impression of Gore. Over the next month, with the help of several gratuitous Gore fibs that were shrewdly hyped by the GOP, they did.

6. Reductionism. I tried to simplify the election by reducing complex dynamics to their parts. For example, I pointed out that Gore was outscoring Bush on questions about which candidate could better handle issues such as health care, Social Security, and education. But comparing the candidates issue-by-issue is only one way of deciding which one you agree with. The alternative is to compare the overarching principles that guide their positions on the issues. That’s how Bush got back on his feet. He steered the debate away from Gore’s specific proposals on education and health care, which voters favored, to Gore’s philosophy of more expensive government, which they opposed.

Likewise, I argued that Bush, because he was less well known than Gore, was more vulnerable to the disclosure of “negative information” about parts of his record that were “only now being investigated and exposed.” Chief among these were Texas’ low rankings on children’s health and environmental quality. But many voters turned out to care less about specific information than about broad impressions. They decided that Bush was more trustworthy than Gore and that this difference was more important than discrete flaws in Bush’s record. In the debates, Gore won the arguments, but Bush won the job interview.

Predictably—if I may use that word—I’ve been hounded and derided for the past month by Bush supporters angry that I wrote off their candidate. They’ve accused me, rightly, of pretending to omniscience. Then, in the next breath, they’ve predicted a landslide for Bush. Last night’s election returns—and the ongoing uncertainty over which candidate will be president—should chasten us all. How will it end? I have no idea.