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Political Animal

What Reporters Want

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/16/2008

Back in 1992, when I was working on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, during the time after the Democratic National Convention, I got in the habit of scrutinizing the state-by-state polls that a startup must-read political newsletter called The Hotline would put out every morning. In every state, any number of outfits conduct polls, some more accurate than others, using a variety of methodologies taking into account turnout among different segments of the populace.

By the time late October came along, nearly every political operative who subscribed to the newsletter knew the writing on the wall: Barring any unforeseen surprises, Clinton would likely upset George H.W. Bush to become the 42nd president of the United States. At this point, if you listened to right-wing talk radio, you could detect a general panicky frothing-at-the-mouth quality to the tone of the commentary. I recall Rush Limbaugh claiming that if Clinton was elected, the stock markets would all immediately crash, and the always-classy Les Kinsolving arguing that the nation deserved to know whether or not Clinton got AIDS from Gennifer Flowers.

My father's brother, who lived in Little Rock about six blocks from the Arkansas governor's mansion, called me up one evening during those fevered times and asked me if Clinton could really win, as "all those national polls are showing it really close." I told him then what has become a mantra of mine every election year since: "National polls don't mean squat."

Here we are in the dead time between when the candidates nail down their respective nominations and the election. With little real campaign-driven news in the offing (with the exception of the always-popular "Surrogate Says Something Stupid" story), news organizations conduct their own polls, which almost invariably show the race "tightening." It's as regular as rain.

News organizations never really look at the candidates' policy positions, because it is taken as a given in any newsroom that "policy" does not equal "news" except when it changes drastically--if, say, John McCain tomorrow said all the troops will come out of Iraq beginning Jan. 21. And the only other option is to find out "how it's playing out there." So the AP and Gallup and Zogby and the networks and the Post and the Times and the Wall Street Journal all get together each week and ask somewhere between 800 and 1,000 random people across the country whom they plan to vote for. This becomes the narrative.

This, plus the "who won the week in the media" stories provide enough up-or-down, back-and-forth movement to drive the rest of the news stories about the campaign season until things heat up after Labor Day and it becomes the full-time circus again.

But once again: National Polls Don't Mean Squat. In case we all didn't absorb the lesson we should have learned the hard way in 2000, presidents are elected via the Electoral College, and that means the only thing that matters (if you care about "the horse race") is what happens on a state-by-state basis. You can see for yourself if you go to FiveThirtyEight.com and look at two things: the electoral vote pie chart on the top left-hand side of the page, and the national map at the top right. Nate Silver, the baseball statistics geek out of Chicago, takes all the state-by-state polls and creates a statistical aggregate of what the race looks like every day, and in terms of who wins/who loses, not much has changed since the day Barack Obama finally bested Hillary Clinton in the delegate count. But in terms of the reporter's-eye view of the world, these numbers don't help fill a news hole every day.

Back in 2006, when I hosted WYPR's weekly news roundup, a variety of reporters from around the state would call in or come to the studio, and we would bat around the issues (and, of course, the horse race) surrounding that fall's election campaigns featuring Martin O'Malley vs. Robert Ehrlich and Ben Cardin vs. Michael Steele. I always recall the reporters--most especially the TV reporters--telling me how the race "felt" to them. I often heard how Steele was going to "make it a race" against Cardin.

Except for the better part of the last two months of the race, polling consistently showed Cardin beating Steele by a sizable margin. Come Election Day, Cardin beat Steele by a margin of 11 points--54 to 44 percent. But not one reporter who came into WYPR ever talked about that because telling everyone every day that Cardin would win is boring. It isn't what anyone would call "news" and would probably garner charges of bias to boot.

In the end, what the media wants is A Story. How they get it is determined by little things that most often don't really matter. Which is why the AP last week ran a story on how its joint poll with Yahoo! News shows that among pet owners John McCain beats Barack Obama 42 percent to 37 percent. Which doesn't mean squat.

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Political Animal archives

More from Brian Morton

The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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