Leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the storyline on the Democratic side was the disastrous state of the Clinton campaign. Her loss was a given; it seemed the only considerations were the margin of defeat and whether or not she would even continue running at all. The day of the primary, the Washington Post reported (1/8/08) that a second loss to Obama "would leave the New York senator's candidacy gasping for breath," and declared that Clinton's vow to stay in the race
may be more wish than reality. By Wednesday, it may be too late. By then, Obama's campaign may have inflicted enough damage on the woman-who-was-once-inevitable that no amount of readjusting, recalibrating and rearranging will give her the wherewithal to overcome two big losses in the first contests of the 2008 nomination battle.
Clinton, of course, won the primary--surprising the pundits and contradicting the polls that journalists unwisely use to set the tone of so much of their coverage. In the aftermath, the media were left asking what went "wrong" with the numbers. As the front page of USA Today declared (1/10/08), "For pollsters, N.H. 'unprecedented.'" But this isn't so; the actual USA Today story included a state pollster who noted that pre-election polls in 2000 vastly underestimated John McCain's victory over George W. Bush. Right before the primary, the New York Times reported (1/30/00) that "a series of polls showed the two Republican front-runners in a dead heat." Given that McCain won by 19 points, journalists and pollsters puzzling over Clinton's showing are ignoring very recent history.
As the media mea culpas start to pile up, it's worth considering the unspoken implication--that if the vote had gone the way the polls were predicting, then the press would have been doing a fine job of covering an election. But journalists should not be gamblers, betting that they will be vindicated by voters' choices that are inherently unpredictable. Reporters should strive for coverage that holds up no matter what the results are.
Expectations and reality
Though they often prefer to think of themselves as mere observers of an election, the media clearly set the tone for much of the campaign, laying out expectations for various candidates and making editorial decisions about who the most "viable" contenders will be--usually long before most actual voters have been given the chance to weigh in.
But beating the expectations doesn't necessarily guarantee good coverage. Democratic contender John Edwards defied press predictions by finishing second in Iowa, ahead of supposed front-runner Hillary Clinton. But much of the media conversation after the votes were tallied focused on the disappointing Edwards showing. By contrast, Republican John McCain had a great night in Iowa, according to many in the press-- despite the fact that he finished fourth, behind Fred Thompson. The obvious difference is not how well the candidates did but how well they are liked by the press corps.
Some in the media point out that the Republican race in New Hampshire went as predicted, so it wasn't all bad news for the press. But the campaign coverage still included its share of bizarrely confident predictions. NBC's Tim Russert (1/4/08) declared that "only McCain or Romney can come out of New Hampshire to fight for another day in South Carolina, only one. One stays behind. It is make or break for McCain or Romney in New Hampshire." Given that both candidates are, by all appearances, continuing to campaign, will Russert explain where his prediction came from? Or as the Washington Post's David Broder wrote before the New Hampshire vote (1/4/08), "A second Romney loss would effectively end the former Massachusetts governor's candidacy."
There's a long trend of media hostility towards so-called "second-tier" candidates (Extra!, , 9/10/03). As a recent Wall Street Journal news story put it (1/10/08), "In both parties, second-tier candidates continue to press on and siphon off votes." But Broder and Russert were not just saying that non-frontrunners have a duty to get out of the way--they were asserting that a loss in New Hampshire would mean that Romney would no longer be a front-runner. This illustrates an important point about mainstream election coverage: Not only do journalists and pundits devote far too much attention to covering the horse race aspect of campaigns, but when they cover the horse race they generally do a poor job of it.
Primary elections and caucuses determine how a state party's delegates are assigned; if a candidate wins enough delegates, they will almost certainly be their party's nominee. So a reasonably helpful media would focus on this delegate count. But the mathematics of this process are obscured by the media's obsession with "wins" and "losses" in highly visible contests.
Consider Barack Obama's apparently monumental victory in the Iowa caucuses. The distribution of delegates, though, was hardly so dramatic: Obama won 16, Clinton 15 and Edwards 14. In a race to secure a little over 2,000 delegates, the results are of little consequence. In New Hampshire, Clinton's dramatic comeback netted her nine delegates--the same number awarded to Obama. In the total delegate count tallied on CNN's website--which counts a large number of party insiders awarded as "superdelegates"--Clinton has more than double the number of delegates as Obama, and Edwards is about 25 delegates behind Obama.
On the Republican side, McCain's victory in New Hampshire gained him seven delegates; to put that in context, Romney's second-place finish in Iowa was worth 12 delegates. And Romney's win in the Wyoming primary--which received almost no media coverage at all--secured him eight delegates. His total delegate count still puts him ahead of all or most his competitors (depending on whether you believe CNN or ABC), though the media coverage would lead you to conclude otherwise.
Given that the process of nominating a presidential candidate is a matter of winning delegates, why does the press assign so much significance to the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries? The implicit assumption is that these small states have a big role in determining the eventual party nominees, but they actually have a quite mixed record in projecting overall winners in competitive races. (Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Pat Buchanan were all New Hampshire winners.) Neither does losing early primaries necessarily doom a candidacy--in 1992, Bill Clinton lost the first five contests. The media's decision to place such importance on the small number of delegates in the first two states has little to do with any actual reasonable political determination.
What do we cover now?
Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw offered some helpful commentary during the coverage of the New Hampshire primaries, suggesting to MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews that reporters put less emphasis on trying to predict outcomes and spend more time covering actual policy:
BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?
MATTHEWS: Yes sir?
BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.
MATTHEWS: Well, what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.
BROKAW: No, no we don't stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they're saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.
Matthews' response is illuminating. Does a political junkie who hosts two national television programs really not have any idea about how to cover politics other than talking about strategy, fundraising and polls? Do campaign journalists really have so little interest in the actual policy positions of the candidates?
As it stands now, the races for the major party nominations are remarkably close. The most valuable service journalists could provide now would be to illustrate the differences between the candidates on the major issues of importance to voters. The press corps seems chastened by their misreading of the New Hampshire electorate, and many are vowing to be more cautious in their assumptions. Will they follow through on their own advice? And will voters ever get campaign reporting that helps them make informed choices about the direction of their democracy?