Last night Russ Feingold, in his unexpected appearance at the Obama rally, called the enthusiasm gap "a myth." If he's right then the polls are entirely wrong -- even the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, which found the incumbent down 11 points against Ron Johnson. More specifically, the recent poll that finds only 35 percent of young people to be enthusiastic about the election would also probably be way off.
The gap would certainly be a helluva lot smaller if Obama could do a few more epic rallies in the Badger State. As it stands, however, the 26,000 strong who came out for the bonanza last night represent but a sliver of young voters the Democrats need to keep Feingold out of the midterm morgue.
Political commentators, many of whom, like me, have a great deal of admiration for Feingold, refuse to believe that such a great national name could fall so fast to a candidate whose career in plastic manufacturing is a fitting metaphor for his factory-made talking points. Sure, there are plenty of empty suit Democrats who are bound to go, but not Russ, say even some of the most pessimistic politicos.
Ah yes, even Russ. Pollster Nate Silver responds to one reader who is skeptical of his projection model, which shows Johnson with nearly an 80 percent chance of winning. I felt like the entire article was directed at me.
When a candidate appears to trail in a race, he's going to give you a story about how he's going to come back (or if he's a little more enterprising, why he isn't really trailing in the first place). He'll talk about how the dynamics of the race are exceptional, about how his internal polls, which are printed on really nice letterhead, show the race to be a dead heat. And he'll give you some tidbits: Union workers in Wilkes-Barre are breaking 2 to 1 for him, you know, and wait 'til you see his September fundraising numbers, because people are getting energized, just now getting energized, about this campaign, they're really getting energized, and that was the plan all along, don'cha know.
Politicians may also find willing accomplices in the news media, which can also have an interest in exaggerating the competitiveness of a race. If the kicker to your horse-race story is "Blanche Lincoln is going to lose by about 20 points, and everyone's just kind of going through the motions here" - well, then it's not much of a horse-race story.
Instead, ticking off the reasons why so-and-so could still win is sometimes taken as a form of journalistic balance. Despite the odds, the more candid of reporters might include as a qualifier. But expressing too much skepticism about the claims made by one of the campaigns might risk a reprimand from an editor.
Incorporating the talking points of both sides often passes as an artificial standard of balance, but a desire not to alienate campaign sources also plays a role. If a journalist makes a frank observation that one candidate has little chance of winning, he risks being ostracized by the campaign, who figures "there's no point" in talking to a guy who either won't put their spin in print, or point out the fallacies in it.