Dick Morris's Hilariously Dumb Misunderstanding of the "Incumbent Rule"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 25 2012 2:42 PM

Dick Morris's Hilariously Dumb Misunderstanding of the "Incumbent Rule"

The funniest prank that Fox News plays on viewers occurs every other night, when freelance strategist Dick Morris -- a former Clintonite who now despises Democrats -- lurches in front of a camera and explains that Republicans will win everything. In 2010, Morris used his multiple media platforms, including the stages of Tea Party events, to ask for donations to his Super PAC for America. Give him enough, and "we could win an additional 50 seats, giving Republicans 100 new seats for this Congress!" (Read Brad Plumer for more about this. It was hilarious.)

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

This morning I gave a link to Morris's latest Fox News appearance, but I somehow missed out on his latest long treatise on why the polls are wrong and Mitt Romney's going to win. The knee-slapper comes when Morris describes the "incumbent rule."

Almost all of the published polls show Obama getting less than 50% of the vote and less than 50% job approval. A majority of the voters either support Romney or are undecided in almost every poll.
But the fact is that the undecided vote always goes against the incumbent... an undecided voter has really decided not to back the incumbent. He just won’t focus on the race until later in the game.
So, when the published poll shows Obama ahead by, say, 48-45, he’s really probably losing by 52-48!
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Got that? According to Morris, literally 100 percent of "undecided" voters will eventually vote against Barack Obama. Leaving aside how the theory ignores spillover to write-ins and third-party candidates, this is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. Nate Silver, bless him, has already explained why the "incumbent rule" doesn't actually exist. "The challenging candidate has typically been underrated by head-to-head polls when he is still engaged in a heated primary battle, when his name recognition is low, or both," wrote Silver. "These effects seem to evaporate by April of the election year or so, when the result of the nomination process is likely to have become clear and when the presumptive nominee is likely to have become widely known to voters."

That deals with the pre-election polls. The exit polls tell us the rest of the story about how undecided voters feel about incumbents. In the last presidential race with an incumbent on the ballot, 2004, we can define "undecided" voters as the ones who made up their mind in the polling booth. In 2004, only 52 percent of these people chose John Kerry over George W. Bush.

Back to Morris. There's literally no evidence that undecided voters will break the way he says they're breaking. But he's telling an audience of voters -- and more importantly for him, potential consumers -- that the media is covering up how Mitt Romney's winning the election. It's silly, and at the same time it lays the ground for endless paranoia if Romney doesn't win.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.