I confess I didn’t stay up past midnight for the resolution of yesterday’s primaries—American Idol or the Democrats, people! I cover one election a night!—but former TV reporter Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times has a good roundup on the sudden and stark shift against Hillary Clinton’s chances after the final Indiana returns came in. The standout, already much quoted, was NBC’s Tim Russert, who pronounced on the Clinton campaign like a doctor in the E.R. standing over a body and looking at his watch: “We now know who the Democratic nominee’s going to be, and no one’s going to dispute it.”
Pundits and journalists generally have to be careful about overstepping their bounds and not calling races before they’re actually over. But I can’t be too judgmental here: the fact is, there comes a point in any primary where it would be malpractice not to acknowledge the facts on the ground, and that point usually comes before the loser concedes. Russert’s call seemed a little much and a little hasty to me, but I don’t know his sourcing: if he’d actually talked to notable superdelegates, Clinton associates, etc., who were told him something big had changed, then it’s a fair call to make. [Update: Ana Marie Cox has further thoughts at Swampland: “Over the past few weeks, I’ve become increasingly annoyed with the pundits who have been all but pulling her physically off the stage. She is not Huckabee, she’s not straggling behind with some kind of symbolic support.”]
What surprises me about the sudden rush to call the race is something I’ve written about before: the sort of punditry meta-game in which the analysts seem not to know in advance what their own reaction will be to a result they’ve already anticipated. In other words: there were only so many ways last night could have gone. Clinton wins two: game-changer. Obama wins two: end of the road for Clinton. A split, with healthy wins on each side: status quo ante. And finally, two in-between results—one of which we got—where there’s a split, but one where one candidate almost wins two.
All those possibilities were there before last night; all were discussed and wargamed on cable well in advance. And yet you had the sense that the on-air pundits didn’t quite know how they would interpret the results until they actually occurred, and until they felt the intangible rhetorical tide of what other pundits—and they themselves—were saying.
You ever hear that E. M. Forster quote about writing? “How can I know what I think until I see what I say”? I think TV punditry is like that: they simply can’t know what they think until they hear the words come out of their own mouths.