Tuned In

Media Measuring the Drapes?

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God help me, I think I actually agree with Matt Drudge about something. In a banner headline this morning (since replaced) Drudge ran together the names of a bunch of news organizations (including TIME) and asked, “Can They All Be Wrong?” The question wasn’t specific, but since it including pretty much everyone who’s been polling the Presidential campaign, it seemed to refer to the increasingly voiced sentiment that the election is over and Barack Obama has won.

So can they all be wrong? Sure they can (which is not the same as saying they likely are). Of course, the press has access to a lot of polling data, at the national and state level, and clearly it says that Obama’s ahead by most measures. Journalists and analysts wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t acknowledge that. But in the past week or so, it’s gone well beyond that: we’ve seen New York magazine write about “Obama’s next New Deal,” we’re seeing names floated for an Obama cabinet, and so on. 

If John McCain ends up winning the election, he isn’t going to know which headline to hold up for the cameras. 

Is the culprit Obama bias? If it is, it’s clumsily executed Obama bias, since I suspect that if anything, his campaign would prefer to damp down expectations so that (1) they can motivate turnout and discourage complacency and (2) should they win, they could avoid articles about how they failed to meet expectations and thus do not have a strong mandate.

The fact is, practically speaking, there’s little advantage to having your support overstated in a general election (at least, no advantage that might not have equal and opposite repercussions). In a primary, at least, the perception that you are winning more handily than you are, that you are inevitable, can have the effect of moving superdelegates, getting opponents to drop out, or drying up your rivals’ fundraising. But a general election is going to be held regardless. 

A big part of what we’re seeing here, I think, is the drive in the media to be first, to get ahead of the narrative. Get to the next next thing! If you wait until people actually, like, vote before you start talking Cabinet picks, someone else will beat you! (If you hedge too much while everyone else goes for the big prediction, you risk looking like you don’t know what you’re talking about.) Also, the last time we had a Presidential election that wasn’t demonstrably tight going into the last week was 1996, when there was less to speculate about in a second Clinton term. So the political press may be a bit out of practice looking at this kind of race. 

The facts are facts. National polls show Obama leading by great or narrower margins, and there hasn’t been one (to my knowledge) to show any McCain lead in over a month. That said, elections are won in the Electoral College, and polls only indicate who would win an election if it were held today—which it’s not. And as we’ve heard repeatedly, polls are premised in part on many things that we simply don’t know, this year in particular: not just possible October surprises but turnout, how undecideds will break, whether the polls are actually sampling the right voters, and, yeah, the R word.

Sure, it’s been a long campaign and the temptation to move on to the next thing is strong. And when you have Republican officials offering up quotes like “the cake is baked,” it becomes even stronger. But we only have seven days to go. Let the people put it in the oven first.