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February 3, 2012

Fallible measures

The media focuses too much on polls and personal lives in assessing each Republican candidate’s merit.

There is something inevitable about the coming presidential election. However, this inevitability is not what many would expect. It is not inevitable that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. While his nomination is likely, it is by no means guaranteed. It is not inevitable that Newt Gingrich will collapse under the weight of his ego. While it is not inevitable that either will beat President Obama, it is equally not inevitable that President Obama will win.

This word, inevitability, should imply a true sense of finality. There is a mistaken idea that we as humans can see what the future holds to such an extent that we can predict it and, further, that we can know it. The only thing we can be sure of this election cycle is that man’s fallibility in this regard will once again be highlighted for all to see. Indeed, no one is perfect, but it seems to be the media’s mission to highlight the imperfections of these candidates’ personal lives.

What hubris we mortals have! Polling is substantially better than it was 100 years ago, but there is still no way to accurately predict the outcome of an election even a week before. An excellent illustration of this is the recent Republican primary in South Carolina, where Mitt Romney was leading in the polls by 14 points four days before the contest. In the subsequent four days, some shift in the voters occurred and Newt Gingrich ended up winning by more than 12 points. Acclaimed New York Times pollster Nate Silver waited until two days before the contest to declare that Gingrich had “momentum” and was more than 50 percent likely to win in the primary. Two days before that, Silver had written about how it was all but a fait accompli that Romney would win.

Despite all the failures in polling surrounding South Carolina—namely, the lack of accuracy for any reasonable length of time and the general flip-flopping of the average voter—the mainstream media still report on and seemingly respect these meaningless poll numbers. Up to now, each successive surge in the Republican primary has been as much about media hype as the legitimacy of each candidate. Only now that the field has been winnowed can all of the candidates prove to be real contenders. Yet the problems continue.

Working in conjunction with these faulty polls is, as usual, the complicit media and its 24-hour news cycle. Whether watching MSNBC or Fox News, or even the supposedly less partisan and more “newsy” stations such as CNN or PBS, there will be hyperbolic mention of every single bit of minutia in the presidential race. While real business is going on, there are sure to be attacks and apologies made toward the various presidential candidates on decidedly non-presidential issues. Examples of such pseudo-scandals come to mind with the top two GOP candidates—Gingrich’s marriages and infidelities and Romney’s tax returns.

First, I’ll address Newt Gingrich’s private life. Gingrich has an incredibly long résumé. For those that question his stances and policies, his list of votes could be gone through with a fine-toothed comb and discussed in a mature way. For those who truly want to attack Gingrich’s candidacy, there is at least one instance where the House Ethics Committee recommended penalizing him. That being said, he is running to become President of the United States. His personal affairs and his own private life should not enter the debate. Whatever people believe about Gingrich as a person, they should not allow these views to color their thoughts on whether he would be a competent president. Attacks coming from the left should reflect the same standards they applied to former President Clinton. He was a man with great moral failings in the personal realm, but he managed in large part to keep them separate from his presidency. From the right, such attacks would be hypocritical: Any true conservative should ensure people’s privacy and liberty. Newt Gingrich may have moral failings, but even so, they should remain personal.

Even worse than the attacks on Gingrich’s personal life are those on Mitt Romney’s taxes. After losing in South Carolina, Romney released his tax returns. Many on the left lamented that his 13.9 percent effective tax rate was unacceptably low, and questioned how we could have a leader that paid so little despite his immense wealth. These ridiculous and patently un-American complaints against someone figuring out a way to pay lower taxes to the oppressive IRS are terrible—they assign blame to Romney for doing nothing wrong. First of all, at 43 percent, his effective total tax plus charity rate was very high. While he may not have been paying the U.S. government more than his legally required due, he more than made up for any perceived shortchanging by donating to the charities of his choice. Further, under Romney’s economic plan, many people in the middle class would be taxed at Romney’s current rate. He merely did what made the most sense with the money he earned from his successful business ventures and should be praised for such actions, not derided.

These are all symptoms of a greater problem. The media have tried to show these candidates under the harshest possible light all in the name of vetting, but it is so harsh a process that it should and likely does scare off qualified presidential candidates. We should be looking to elect in our next president someone with great dignity and great ideas, and the media’s attempts to influence elections with scatterbrained polling and diminish the dignity of the candidates based on irrelevant issues are not conducive to public discourse. Trying to bring these men down through personal attacks—even in the interests of the lofty ideal of transparency—is not a virtue, but a vice.

 Eric Wessan is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.

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