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March 17, 2006

Chris Matthews and "Them"

Matthews_sad Watching Chris Matthews find out that Bush is unpopular is like seeing a kid react to the news that there is no Santa.  Were it not so funny, it'd be terribly sad:

MATTHEWS: I always thought Bush was more popular than his policies. I keep saying it, and I keep being wrong on this. Bush is not popular. I'm amazed when 50 percent of the people don't like him -- just don't like this guy. Thirty-nine percent like him. Are you surprised? Does that fit with the world you walk in?

But in every deranged statement lies a kernel of insight, and Matthews' plaintive protests against his own cognitive dissonance is no different.  Indeed, he actually sheds light on the key dynamic of Bush's enduringly favorable press coverage which, even now, isn't near as hostile as an observer would expect.  What Matthews reveals here is an availability problem, and he accidentally -- I think -- admits its near-ubiquity among the press corps.

But first, some background.  Recently, Andrew Gelman, Boris Shor, Joseph Basumi, and David Park released a paper entitled Rich State, Poor State, Red State, Blue State: What's the Matter With Connecticut?  The report attempted to sync an apparent paradox: rich voters go for Republicans in greater numbers than ever before, but rich states tend to go Democratic.  What their analysis of the voting data found was that, in poor states, the rich and better-off were even more likely vote Republican, becoming an impressively solid voting bloc, while low-income voters trended heavily Democratic.  In rich states, like Connecticut, the rich still tended to mark the "R," but not in significantly greater numbers than the poor, as richer states tended to see a drop in correlation between income and voter preference.  So why did the media continue on with the latte-liberal meme, stereotyping Democrats as the party of rich folks and Republicans as champions of the working-class?  They write:

A national survey of journalists found that about twice as many are Democrats as Republicans (see Poynter Online, 2003, summarizing the work of Weaver et al., 2003). Presumably their friends and acquaintances are also more likely to support the Democrats, and a first-order availability bias would lead a journalist to overestimate the Democrats’ support in the population—as in the above quote that has been attributed to Pauline Kael ["I can’t believe Nixon won. I don’t know anybody who voted for him."].

However, political journalists are well aware of the latest polls and election forecasts and are unlikely to make such an elementary mistake. However, they can well make the second-order error of assuming that the correlations they see of income and voting are representative of the population.14 Journalists are predominantly college graduates and have moderately high incomes (median salary in 2001 of $44,000, compared to a national average of $36,000; see Weaver et al., 2003)—so it is natural for them to think that higher-income voters such as themselves tend to be Democrats, and that lower-income voters whom they do not know are Republicans. Michael Barone, for example, although no liberal himself, probably knows many affluent liberal Democrats and then, from a second-order availability bias, imputes an incorrect correlation of income and Democratic voting to the general population.

More to the point, pundits tend to live in urban supercenters, which do trend markedly Democratic, and hang out in intellectually elite circles, where people do drink lattes, so it's no surprise that even the conservatives among them stereotype Democrats upper-income, well-educated liberals populating their everyday routines.  That said, now jump back to Matthews' final plea: "Does this [Bush's low personal popularity] fit with the world you walk in?"

Matthews is admitting that it doesn't fit with the world he walks in, the world of political professional, politicians, and highly successful pundits.  Many of them believe the guy is doing a bad job, but none have let that judgment poison their well of personal esteem for George Bush.  He's making a second-order mistake, assuming that since everybody he knows is like that, the regard for Bush's winning personality can be extrapolated out across the country.  He's wrong.  But in doing, he inadvertently admits what many of us have believed ever since the 2000 campaign.  Whatever Bush's occupational failures, the profession responsible for confronting him is inexplicably charmed by the guy.  If Matthews is making trouble letting go public, it's nevertheless obvious that he's sensed no backlash against the guy in his own social circle, and, in the manner of second-order availability problems, is overheating his mental control center trying to sync his everyday experiences up with the national data.

Last weekend, I was watching the Chris Matthews Show, and was struck by one of the promos that has him posed on dark, elegantly shadowed background, intoning that "I promise never to let
them get anything by me."  But lest you think I'm claiming Matthews didn't live up to his promise, believe me, I don't.  I think he's doing an excellent job.  It's just that, for Matthews, the American public, not the professional political class, is the "them" he's on guard against.

March 17, 2006 | Permalink

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Comments

I am overheating my mental control center trying to understand why anyone would actually like George Bush as a person. Looks like a jerk to me. But then, Chris Matthews, Russert, Andrea Mitchell also all look like jerks, so it may be a second order phenomenon.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 17, 2006 11:32:56 AM

Did you mean to say both that it would be funny if it weren't so sad and that it would be sad if it weren't so funny? If so congratulations.

Posted by: Twin Earth | Mar 17, 2006 11:35:48 AM

I'm going to have to go find that. Fascinating stuff. Some points.

(1) Did the study control for race? There is this other phenomenon, which correlates the percentage of African American residents with the Republican leanings of the white population. (Mississippi: Whites vote 80% Republican. Vermont: not so much).

(2) Of course, while this phenomenon is true even in urban settings (witness Rudy Giuliani), the interesting question is why its still less common there.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Mar 17, 2006 11:36:53 AM

Yeah, it did control for race. You can see the study here (pdf).

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 17, 2006 11:39:24 AM

Good catch, Twin -- fixed it.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 17, 2006 12:06:24 PM

What Bob said. Also, even allowing for "availability bias" there's a dissonance involved. As the report says, "political journalists are well aware of the latest polls". So we're supposed to believe that Matthews looked at the approval raings in the polls but never the favourability ratings. Seems far fetched to me.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Mar 17, 2006 12:09:34 PM

Chrissy's remark reminds me of the (apocryphal? or just plain made-up?) quote on Nixon, attributed to Pauline Kael: "I can't believe he won. No one I know voted for him." Wingnuts like to throw it around as "proof" that liberals are out of touch with real America. Chrissy, of course, is only out of touch with the two-thirds of America that hates America, so that's all right then.

Posted by: Michael | Mar 17, 2006 12:51:11 PM

Perhaps the first ever nested shorter:
Shorter Ezra: Shorter Chris Matthews: "I can't believe Bush is unpopular, I don't know anyone who dislikes him."

Posted by: SP | Mar 17, 2006 1:08:21 PM

Mathews hears (and reads into the little he reads) what he subconsciously wants to hear.

Chris's most revealing statement ever: "Does this [Bush's low personal popularity] fit with the world you walk in?" gives him away. It sums up all that is wrong (out of touch with the people and in touch with the beltway-insiders) with national level media folk.

I'm never surprised. His gatling gun mouth can barely keep up with the unordered facts and perceptions he's got his brain loaded up with. He's the C-130 gunship of the MSM - lots of rapid fire, lots of colateral damage, occasionally a hit on target.

Even if condemned to spend half his time in Modesto, Springfield or Lexington, his brain isn't up to the task of making a coherent image of the world.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Mar 17, 2006 1:26:26 PM

o lord, darrell hammond on snl has nailed matthews.

i wonder why some people watch matthews, who impresses me as a horse's ass of of the deepest caliber.

Posted by: harry near indy | Mar 17, 2006 5:54:07 PM

I think what's interesting - because I think those demographic stats show me nothing surprising and are pretty much where I thought the country was and is all along - is how personally Chris Matthews takes all of this. I suspect - and it's curious to me, really - that Matthews takes what he sees literally. I think it's what makes him telegenic and a bit of a blowhard - he has a sincerity that's impossible to fake... as opposed to say, a Sean Hannity who has a smarminess that makes you want to deck him (but is also a telegenic approach for a blowhard). Hannity's got the smug gloating stance of a surefire winner; Matthews isn't gloating, he's just really, really sincere. Which is to say what fascinates me is that he actually believed that the "Bush as tough talking good guy with a decent heart" storyline was a winner. Whereas I always thought the people who bought that storyline hook, line, and sinker were extremely poor judges of character. Not because Bush is a bad man - I think he's really a rather ordinary man with average flaws - but because I don't care how decent your heart is or how tough your talk is, there's simply more to being the leader of the free world than that. I think Matthews - like Noonan, who he clearly admires - tends to see a rosy picture where he needs a solid, no-nonsense standard of evaluation. It makes him a lousy pundit, and a poor observer of the national scene.

If this turn of events makes Matthews less trusting - a naivete I think he shares with a good sized subset of his generation... still - then this is all to the good; but I suspect the net effect will be to push Matthews to feel that the mass public are rubes who don't see things with the sharp shining clarity he has - or, in other words, yes, he's going to turn into Katie Couric. :)

Posted by: weboy | Mar 17, 2006 7:46:36 PM

if only they would replace chris matthews with you...
his show has so little to offer, day after day... and you would bring all
of your intelligence and insight to so many people.
....that is my wish.

Posted by: jacqueline | Mar 17, 2006 9:00:32 PM

I always thought that Darrell Hammond's version of Hardball was a much better pundit show than MSNBC's _actual_ Hardball.

Posted by: Constantine | Mar 18, 2006 3:23:18 PM

"I think Matthews - like Noonan, who he clearly admires - tends to see a rosy picture where he needs a solid, no-nonsense standard of evaluation. It makes him a lousy pundit, and a poor observer of the national scene."

Chrissy Hardballs is an idiot. You would expect someone with his DC experience to be able to recognize GWB as the vapid front man for the gang o' pirates as they steal everything that isn't nailed down.

Posted by: CParis | Mar 20, 2006 12:53:54 PM

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 22, 2007 6:51:04 AM

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Posted by: peterwei | Oct 22, 2007 6:55:07 AM

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