Tuned In

Winning and Spinning

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MSNBC just declared Obama the winner of Missouri–sorry, the “Apparent Winner.” This after tonight’s earlier distinction between “too close to call” and “too early to call.” What a range of gradients between “winner” and “loser” they have at NBC News! What’s next? Will they project someone as the pyrrhic victor?

It’s an appropriate since, especially on the Democratic side, winning and losing isn’t cut-and-dried. Although the networks have set up quasi-general-election desks, with lit-up maps, in fact, who lights up the map is not the only, and not even the biggest, part of winning. Democrats assign delegates proportionally by district, which means no state is winner-take-all, and the delegate results won’t be known for a while. (Each network has a different estimate.)

So it’s all about spin now. Hillary Clinton seems to have done better on Fox than the other cable channels: Brit Hume says she “had a pretty big night” and William Kristol says she’s now the frontrunner. The other networks seem to be holding themselves in check more: NBC’s David Gregory notes that the few surprises were in Obama’s favor (Connecticut, Missouri), while Clinton, winning in California and Massachussetts, “held her own.” (Among the Republicans, the media consensus is clearer: Romney had a lousy night.)

My colleague Mark Halperin, though, notes that there’s a hidden factor informing all the interpretation: the exit-poll numbers that came out late Tuesday afternoon, which showed Obama winning bigger margins than he actually did. (And winning states, like New Jersey, that had been expected to go to Clinton.) For a few hours, the press–caveats not to trust exit polls not withstanding–thought they might be looking at an Obama blowout. To them, the results were thus surprisingly favorable to Clinton–even though they were more or less in line with polls from the last week or so.

Which means that much of the press is writing the Super Tuesday narrative not based on the candidates’ delegate counts, on their momentum, or on their performance relative to earlier polls or earlier primaries–but on how well they did compared with an exit pollster’s estimate of how they did. So victory is defined as beating not your opponent, but your own imaginary performance in a pretend election held a few hours earlier.

This is how elections are won today.