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Post Partisan
Posted at 04:12 PM ET, 07/10/2012

The Swift Boat myth

I’m getting to this late, but I can’t let it go. In Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine profile of Democratic Super PACs, we get this:

More than one member of the Priorities team told me that Romney reminded them of another wooden and reserved Massachusetts politician, Burton’s former candidate in 2004, John Kerry — who, history shows, was defined and thereafter demolished by a masterful if venal tag-team consisting of the Bush campaign and the proto-super PAC Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. And, as the Priorities team well knew, the Swift Boat assault on Kerry’s war record was waged with one-twentieth of the backing that the Democrats raised for their anti-Bush PACs.

“History shows”? History shows that lots of people believed that the Swift Boat attacks were effective. And yet: George W. Bush was an incumbent president with a healthy economy. Iraq wasn’t a plus, even in 2004, but I’d guess that every single one of the Priorities team that Draper spoke with would say that national security was a net plus for Bush in that cycle, simply because he had been president on September 11, 2001, and had been perceived as handling the situation extremely well.

But if you put those things together: What would you expect to have happened in November 2004? In fact, we can turn to the election prediction models created by political scientists and others that were published before that election, but don’t take the Swift Boat campaign into account, and they predicted a solid Bush victory. Usually by a larger, not a smaller, margin than he actually won by.

In my view, a conclusion that Kerry was knocked out by the Swift Boat campaign just defies common sense. Perhaps it hurt him; but if so, it was offset by other parts of the campaign. Or perhaps it was just a dud. There’s a major bias working here in that everything that winners do is remembered as contributing to the win, and everything losers do is remembered as contributing to the defeat. But in reality that’s not how it works at all. I couldn’t say for a fact that the Swift Boat campaign was a dud — but it surely was not part of a brilliant, successful campaign by the Bush team that brought them an unexpectedly strong victory. And for that matter, the early attacks on Bob Dole by Team Clinton in 1996 are the same story: Dole beat the prediction models, too, if not by enough to make it a truly close election.

None of that means that it’s a mistake for the Obama folks to try it this time. After all, they’re going to have money to spend, so they might as well spend it. But I wouldn’t expect very much out of it.

By  |  04:12 PM ET, 07/10/2012

 
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