Jan 8 2008

Media to Voters: It’s Over

Pundits rushing to end primaries and preempt voter choices

As the results of the Republican and Democratic primaries in New Hampshire are reported tonight, it’s a good bet that many prominent pundits and journalists will declare the race for the White House all but over–long before 98 percent of voters have had any say in the matter.

The Washington Post‘s David Broder wrote on January 4 that “New Hampshire is poised to close down the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.” Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter (1/3/08) likewise declared Obama to be the new inevitable after he won the Iowa caucus:

With his victory tonight, Barack Obama is now the strong favorite to be the Democratic nominee for president. The only one who can stop Obama from making history is Obama…. Unless he makes a terrible mistake in this weekend’s WMUR debate in New Hampshire, Obama will be the strong favorite to win in the Granite State…. Should the Illinois senator win New Hampshire and South Carolina, it will be next to impossible to prevent him from becoming the nominee on February 5, Super Tuesday.

Actually, it’s easy to imagine at least three Democratic candidates still having substantial support on February 5, meaning that Super Tuesday could produce no clear winner. The Republican race has much the same dynamic; though it hasn’t happened in decades, one or both of the major parties could go into their conventions not knowing who their nominee is.

By any reasonable standard, then, the race for either major party’s presidential nomination is far from settled. But Broder nonetheless argued that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s campaign was virtually finished: “A second Romney loss would effectively end the former Massachusetts governor’s candidacy.”

NBC anchor Tim Russert sounded a similar alarm (1/4/08): “Bottom line, Brian, 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.”

Why are the media rushing to end the primary season just as it’s begun? It’s sometimes difficult to follow the logic. Consider a USA Today report from January 7:

The Democratic contest is a two-person race, dominated by Clinton and Obama. That leaves Edwards, a former North Carolina senator who is a close third, and Richardson, New Mexico’s governor who is a distant fourth, waiting for a stumble or a political earthquake to create an opening for them.

How are four candidates participating in a “two-person race”–especially given that one of the lesser candidates–John Edwards–finished ahead of Hillary Clinton? Similarly, the New York Times‘ Adam Nagourney (1/5/08) argued that “the results in Iowa…suggested that the Democratic and Republican contests were to a considerable extent two-way races: Mrs. Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois for the Democrats, and Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney for the Republicans.” How Mike Huckabee coming in first in his race and Edwards coming in second “suggested” that their candidacies should be dismissed, Nagourney didn’t explain.

The press has been more harshly critical of Edwards’ campaign, so it could be the case that many in the media would be happy to see him out of the picture. (See Action Alert, 12/21/07.) Indeed, much of the conventional wisdom after Edwards’ second-place finish in Iowa suggested that his campaign for the White House was all but over. As New York Times columnist David Brooks (New York Times, 1/4/08) boldly pronounced, “Edwards’s political career is probably over.” David Gergen agreed (CNN, 1/3/08): “John Edwards I think has nowhere to go now…even with a second-place win, because he has no money.”

In an interview with Edwards, MSNBC host Keith Olbermann (1/4/08) expressed bewilderment:

I didn’t understand the conventional wisdom last night…. If you finish second in Iowa with more support from the previous national front-runner, who dropped from first to third, many of the pundits, many of the so-called experts, are describing you as being in trouble, rather than Senator Clinton. Do you know why that is?

It’d be nice if more in the media asked such questions about what passes for conventional wisdom in their election coverage. Indeed, some articles have noted that winning early primaries isn’t necessary to winning the nomination; in 1992, Bill Clinton lost the first five contests, but somehow managed to win the White House nonetheless. This very recent history would suggest that, at a very minimum, campaign reporters refrain from handicapping the outcome of the nominating process in early January. After all, it’s voters, not the news media, who are supposed to elect the next president.