“It is difficult to overstate President Obama’s unpopularity in most of Louisiana,” writes Campbell Robertson in a front-page New York Times article (9/11/09). Yet Robertson managed to pull it off.
Robertson continues: “He lost handily to Senator John McCain here, picking up only 14 percent of the white vote. (The state is roughly two-thirds white.)” Fourteen percent? Wow, that is unpopular! But given that black and other non-white people have been able to vote in Louisiana for several decades now, wouldn’t it make sense to give the actual share of the vote Obama received? That would be 40 percent, which is a pretty disappointing electoral result, but Obama did worse in six other states–and McCain did as bad or worse in 12 states. Yet it would be pretty easy, I would think, to overstate McCain’s unpopularity in, say, Maine.
The problem here is treating white opinion as representative of the opinions of the public at large. (“In Louisiana, Tainted Senator Rides Anti-Obama Sentiment” is the print headline.) It’s a subtler form of the crude analysis Chris Matthews used to do when Obama was running for the Democratic nomination: “How’s he connect with regular people? Does he? Or does he only appeal to people who come from the African-American community?”
The Times piece is mainly about the re-election prospects of Sen. David Vitter, but it takes time out for a look back at a recent special election race for a Louisiana State Senate seat. The lone Republican in the three-way race bashed his opponents with a flier–which accompanies the story as a graphic–featuring a smiling hippie and the text, “You might be a liberal if you…voted for Barack Obama.” But the punchline of the story is that one of the Democrats beat the Republican in the runoff election, 54 percent to 46 percent, which would seem to undercut the story’s contention that Obama is to Louisiana voters as garlic is to vampires. But the next line in Robertson’s story is, “So given Louisiana’s increasingly reddish hue, the prevailing political wisdom is that a real threat to Mr. Vitter would come from his right.” Illustrating the old journalism adage: Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.