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Managing Editor Steve Coll

Steve Coll
Washington Post Managing Editor
Wednesday, November 3, 2004; 12:00 PM

This Week: Washington Post Managing Editor Steve Coll, was online Wednesday, Nov. 3, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about Post coverage of Election 2004 and the paper in general -- from the front page to the comics page. Have questions? Ask The Post.

Coll joined The Post in 1985. Before becoming managing editor, he served as financial correspondent, investigative correspondent and as The Post's South Asia correspondent from 1989 to 1992. He is the author of several books, including "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001."

Steve Coll
Steve Coll
Steve Coll, author of `Ghost Wars,' published by The Penguin Press. (Lauren Shay Lavin - AP/The Penguin Press)

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Detroit, Mich.: As a Republican, I am actually asthonished by the overwhelming victory nationwide. With the economy the way it is, with record job less especially in Ohio and Michigan, with a mismanaged and unpopular war you would think that Kerry would win in a landslide. If you are a Democrat this has to be one of the worst days in your life, if you can't win with all these favorable conditions then when can you win?

Steve Coll: Good afternoon everybody. We'll be holding this discussion in the midst of fast-evolving developments. As you know, Senator Kerry has conceded the election to President Bush. We expect the Senator to speak around 1 p.m., just as we are finishing up. The president will make a speech later in the day. I expect we'll talk politics in the hour ahead, but I'm happy to address other questions about the Post as well.

This first question seems a pretty good place to start. Many Republicans were nervous and some Democrats were optimistic because the president's approval ratings and similar benchmarks headed into the vote hovered in a grey area -- just higher than incumbents who had been defeated, and lower than incumbents who had been reelected. The economy obviously has been patchy to down during the first Bush term, but of course, this has been far from the worst economic period an incumbent has had to endure. Still, I'm sure the questioner speaks very accurately for many Democrats.


Orlando, Fla.: Do you think we will see any public recognition from the Bush Administration that a vast number of U.S. citizens voted for Kerry only in the hopes of ousting Bush and his current foreign policies?

Steve Coll: It will be interesting to think about this question as we watch the president's victory speech this afternoon. Surely the president is aware that what he has often described as his resolute, unwavering foreign policies have provoked passionate opposition at home and abroad. Will he set the tone for his second term by tacking toward the center, reaching out to opponents -- or will he emphasize the themes of strong leadership he struck during the campaign? The speech will be one small indicator. Perhaps more important will be the decisions he makes about his cabinet and his staff as the new term approaches.


Charlottesville, Va.: What about the possibility that the exit polls are right and the vote count is wrong? I recall fears before the election that untested technology and electronic voting with no paper trail could lead to unreliable results. Those fears seem to have evaporated, probably because there is no way to test them. But that's one way to explain the discrepancy between how people said they voted and how they seem to have voted.

Steve Coll: I see no possibility that the exit polls were right and the vote count was wrong. I see lots of reason to think that -- again, as they have often been in the past -- the exit polls were badly flawed. This was a real problem in our newsroom last night. The last wave of national exit polls we received, along with many other subscribers, showed Kerry winning the popular vote by 51 percent to 48 percent -- if true, surely enough to carry the electoral college, however the contested states in the midwest broke down. The sample size was so large that it appeared beyond the usual margins of error in polling. Yet the poll was dead wrong. How can this be? You can be sure we'll be asking that question pointedly in the days ahead, as well as producing stories for readers about the issues.


Washington, D.C.: I don't understand The Post's polling numbers, because they contradict each other. Looking at the math according to different demographic groups, it simply doesn't add up. According to your breakdowns with regard to gender, party affiliation, ideology, region and 2000 presidential vote, Kerry has a clear statistical lead. Yet according to religious affiliation and perhaps issues, Bush wins. What's going on here? Why the statistical contradictions?

Steve Coll: The exit poll numbers we have paid for and been provided simply do not add up. They are internally inconsistent in important ways. They also are out of whack with voting results in ways that are difficult to explain. One thesis being explored today is shorthanded as the problem of "female skew." This refers to the fact that women are more likely than men to agree to be interviewed about their votes outside of polling stations. In fact, in the exit polls we received yesterday, there were more women in the sample than we expected to see in the final turnout. But the analysts handling this data believed that this distortion would not change the general trend of the poll and had been weighed to some extent by the poll's managers. We need to review questions such as this one in greater depth, although one's confidence that it will ever be possible to conduct accurate exit polls in the heat of a campaign such as the one we just had has to be shaken.


College Park, Md.: Do you think that the media, including the Post, will become increasingly critical of Bush administration? I ask this question in light of journals like The Economist which in their "heavy hearted" endorsement for Kerry, claimed that Bush was never actually qualified for the job.

Steve Coll: One of the media's important roles in our constitutional system is to provide an independent, non-governmental check on power and the powerful. In the second Bush term one political party will again control the White House, both houses of Congress, and rising sections of the judiciary. The party's confidence will be rising because of its extended majorities. It is crucial for the media, without adopting partisan agendas or becoming part of the partisan process, to rise to this occasion and do the independent, fact-based reporting that can help hold this power to account -- just as our political system contemplates that it should.


New York, N.Y.: Now that Kerry has conceded, will the provisional ballots in Ohio (and elsewhere) be counted.

What about the absentee ballots?

Will we get an "accurate" count published at some point for all states?

Steve Coll: As we understand the law in Ohio, yes, the provisional ballots will be assessed and counted as a matter of course. Same with the absentee ballots. The final tally in Ohio may not be published for ten days or more, which is the time that is normally taken to assess and count the provisional ballots. In the end, there will be final numbers published in Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, and other states where state authorities could not complete their work last night, and where the margins were fairly thin.


Herndon, Va.: Do you forsee a shakeup in the leadership of the Democratic party in the near future, especially after losing in every measureable way in the last two elections?

Steve Coll: Whichever party lost this passionately fought election was in for a period of internal upheavel. In the Republican party it was a little easier to see how this might play out, as there were more clearly defined factions of leadership struggling with each other even in the midst of the unified campaign against Kerry. The Democrats look a little murkier to me, in the sense that there are not a lot of nodes of strong, competing leadership waiting to step forward in the aftermath of Kerry's loss -- leadership, that is, that can speak to the party's structural problems with rural voters, southern voters, religious voters, and so on. The party is being systematically stripped out of the south and midwest. In short, surely there will be a reckoning, but who will develop and claim a strategy for victory as Clinton and the DLC finally did after the long drought of the 1980s? Hard to see at this point.


New York, N.Y.: I'm a Bush voter in a blue state. I'd like to comment that just because my side won doesn't mean that I am going to forget how badly the media tried to pull Kerry along. Everything from the "60 Minutes" fraudulent documents to the New York Times "380 tons" late hit to the faulty exit polls (gee, three elections in a row they are pro-Democrat, what a coincidence -- NOT).

While The Post has been pretty fair, a lot of your colleagues have not, and I think it has damaged your entire industry's reputation in the views of much of Red America. I wonder if you have any comment on that.

Steve Coll: Thanks for your comment. Without endorsing your criticisms of specific media outlets, I would say this as a general matter: Everything in this election became passionate and partisan to a greater degree than in the recent past. In the media, as in politics and the culture, the order of the day is fragmentation driven by technological change, more participants, more diversity of opinion, more anger, more argument, fewer facts. The center is under pressure in our business as elsewhere.


Demarest, N.J.: Back to the exit polls -- because I think a lot of Americans like me, disturbed by the high level of sleaze and dirty tricks from the Bush people during the campaign, had real worries about a fair vote. I saw one poll suggesting two-thirds of Democrats feared the vote wouldn't be fair.

Imagine for a moment that the exit polls are basically right -- or right within some margin: Kerry did better than Bush. Imagine furthermore that, as many computer experts feared about the Diebold and other electronic voting machines, a portion of the "official" vote count was rigged. (Sorry to bring up ancient history, but Diebold's president did promise he'd deliver Ohio for Bush -- whatever that might mean.)

Is anyone going to correlate exit-poll errors with precincts that use the new electronic voting machines to see if there's a pattern, to wit: in precincts where there's no paper trail and no way of conducting a recount, Bush outdid expectations; in other precincts, results more or less matched exit polls?

I'm not saying this is the case, but as someone who felt slimed by Florida in 2000, I'd like someone to pause long enough (it's less than 24 hours after the polls closed!) to make sure we're not seeing another stolen election. I'd rather not have to wait until Jeffrey Toobin's next book to discover I've been slimed again.

Steve Coll: Well, I don't want to write off legitimate questions about the integrity of the voting system. But turn the question around: Which is more likely -- that an exit polling system that has been consistently wrong and troubled turned out to be wrong and troubled again, or that a vast conspiracy carried out by scores and scores of county and state election officials was successfully carried off to distort millions of American votes? I think the Kerry campaign concluded that the former is what happened. But we'll keep our eyes open for hard evidence of abuse, and we won't be afraid to investigate if we see something significant.


Seattle, Wash.: Why did you all run the analysis (by David Broder and Richard Morin) of how the vote broke down when that analysis was based on exit polls that were obviously flawed?

By the way, reading your book right now. It is superb.

washingtonpost.com: Four Years Later, Voters More Deeply Split, (Post, Nov. 3)

Steve Coll: That's a fair question. The scale of the flaws in the exit polling -- so great by the early hours of the morning that it called into question every aspect of its analysis of demography and voter preference -- led us to reduce the claims and narrow the focus of those stories as we moved from edition to edition. This is a lesson we will certainly take to heart in the future. The truth is that it was not until well after midnight that results in Ohio, elsewhere in the midwest and in the west made clear how off the exit polling projections of the national popular vote would be. Once we saw that, we of course realized that the more granular evidence in those polls could not be considered reliable.


Venice, Calif.: How do you think the world will react to Bush's reelection? Can our relations with Europe get any worse than they already are?

Steve Coll: Europe's view of the Bush Administration isn't monolothic. Tony Blair will breathe a modest sigh of relief, given that he faces his own election early next year in which he will have to defend the Iraq war. Conservative governments in Italy and elsewhere will welcome Bush's reelection. As for Germany and France, the heart of opposition to the Bush Administration and its policies, it's difficult to see how there would be much change in the next year or two.


Ashburn, Va.: You said:

"One of the media's important roles in our constitutional system is to provide an independent, non-governmental check on power and the powerful."

Can you explain your reasoning behind this statement? I think most Americans -- particularly the right -- see the media as very "powerful" and urgently in need of a check itself. I think the rise of Fox News and alternative media (mainly Internet) lends support to my point.

Steve Coll: I consider Fox News part of the equation. And if the independent thinkers at Fox News or other conservative media, acting outside of the control of political parties, believe that one of their functions should be to hold other powerful media organizations accountable, then more power to them. That's how the system should work. Where I would become worried as a citizen would be if I felt conservative media organizations were acting as the propaganda arm of the government or a political party. There are cases where their conduct has raised that question for me. Ultimately, readers and viewers have to decide who they trust and why.


Bethesda, Md.:

This is more of a comment for you that I'd like you to respond to. I am so happy, not just because Bush won but because the press got it wrong. All we heard about was the young turn out and how Democrats were really, really angry and they were going to give Kerry the edge. Never ever do you guys give us social and religious conservatives the respect we deserve. I would have waited for three days in line to vote Bush yesterday because of abortion and "gay marriage" but you press and pollsters completely ignored us because you are all so different from us. You barely know any of us.

Steve Coll: Thanks for your comment. We certainly reported again and again that Republican strategists in Ohio and other key battleground states felt their ground operations were easily the match of the Democratic ones. I think our battleground and ground war reporting was pretty fair and accurate in that respect -- we certainly never called the ground war. But does cultural distance between evangelical networks and the typical (although not universal) cultural attitudes of newsroom types make it harder for journalists to get under the skin of a ground operation such as the one that apparently prevailed yesterday? Probably. We try to hire all kinds of journalists with all kinds of outlooks and backgrounds to overcome this challenge.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Now that the election is over, do you think threre will be a more objective discussion about the Iraq strategy within the administration, shared with the public?

Steve Coll: We knew going in that whoever won would have an excruciatingly difficult path ahead in Iraq, one that will require more sacrifice from American soldiers, more resources from the treasury, and more patience from the public. Will the president find it easier to win such support from Congress and the public given his convincing victory in the popular vote and in both chambers? I would think so. What sort of public discussion will that produce about strategy in Iraq? Harder to say.


Maryland: Mr. Coll, what incentive (if any) do the Repubilcans have to cooperate with the Democrats? As far as I can see, the Republicans can and will stick their tongues out at the Democrats and do whatever they want.

Steve Coll: This was clearly a big win for the Republican party across the board, despite the relatively narrow margin in the electoral college. It's particularly significant because the victory was achieved without much outreach to moderate Democrats or political centrists -- instead, a resolute president concentrated on his conservative base for the most part, and he won. I agree that this does not seem likely to produce much compromise with the Democrats in the next couple of years.


Raleigh, N.C.: This is similar to an earlier question.

I know that to really find out we'll have to wait and see what the President does with his second term. But do you see it more likely he will try to work across the aisle or with no more electoral concerns (at least for himself) become even more extreme?

I am a lifelong Republican, but my fear of the latter caused me to vote for a Democrat for the first time in my life.

Steve Coll: One thing we know about the president is that he follows his own counsel. He will have lots of political reasons to stay his course. But one question that is impossible to answer from the outside is whether, in reflecting on his victory and in thinking about his legacy, he will decide to change some of the approaches to domestic politics and foreign policy that he pursued during his first term -- and if so, what will he change? Surely he is troubled to some degree by the deep divides in the country exposed during this campaign. What will he try to do about them, if anything? I don't know.


South Riding, Va.: If the exit polls were flawed as they appeared to be, then can we assume that other opinion polls such as the President's approval rating are equally flawed? Is there anything that the media companies are exploring as ways to develop better ways of gathering this type of data?

Steve Coll: Actually, the opinion polling that preceded the vote -- if taken as a whole -- was not too far off. It showed on the weekend before the election a close vote with perhaps a slight Bush lean. That was how it turned out. The exit polls were more troubling because their sample sizes were larger and they purported to measure something that had already occurred -- votes cast -- as against something prospective -- voter intentions. You would think it would be easier to measure something that has already happened than something that has not yet happened. But this did not prove to be the case this time.


McLean, Va.: I am just curious why you think the media went with the story about the exit polls, knowing that the last couple times they've been used, they have been wrong.

Steve Coll: There was a fair amount of caution on television and in our newsroom because of the debacle in 2000. But as I said earlier, but the time the last national wave came in, showing Kerry up three points in the popular vote with a huge and widely distributed sample, and with a number of early battleground states like Pennsylvania and New Hampshire breaking Kerry's way, it was possible to succomb to the belief that the exit polls were basically accurate. Everybody in the business -- the media business and in politics -- was basically looking at the same numbers at that point. Our streaming reporting from Republican sources had them pretty downcast at early evening. Some cautioned that the exit poll numbers in states like Ohio and Florida looked off to them. But there was not a rising sense of confidence in the Republican circles we talked to until fairly late in the evening, as the Florida and Ohio vote counts began to settle down and Bush began to look stronger and stronger.


Arlington, Va.: Of all the losers in this election - Kerry, Daschle, the DNC, I'd have to say that the biggest losers were George Soros and his Kabal of 527s, and the Hollywood propaganda machine most vividly illustrated by Michael Moore. My read is it was a total repudiation of the left elite trying to corrupt the process. You agree? Great chat and a great day. Thanks for taking my question.

Steve Coll: George Soros certainly poured a lot of money into this campaign. I'm assuming he can afford it. But he must be among the most frustrated people out there on the losing side.


Catonsville, Md.: Has this election concluded a realignment now heavily favoring the Republican Party? Are we now in an age of GOP dominance?

Steve Coll: Everytime anyone like me declares a new age or a profound realignment, my advice would be to examine the opposite and see if it applies. But yes, the Republican Party has won a very impressive victory and will control the White House, the Senate, the House, the next round of Supreme Court appointments, not to mention governors' houses and state legislatures across huge swaths of the country. The party still faces one profound long-term challenge: As minority populations in the United States continue to grow steadily, inexorably changing the face and outlook of the electorate, how do Republicans bring them into the party's tent? This is a nut the party has not yet cracked.


Iowa : Mr. Coll -- What do I say to my student intern who worked so hard on the Dem GOTV efforts for the entire campaign? He came in this morning and quoted this to me: "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." - George Bernard Shaw

Steve Coll: The bitterness and frustration among Democrats this morning is palpable whereever encountered. It was a heckuva an election, though. The turnout, the spirited engagement -- whatever you think of the result, it was quite something to walk through it yesterday, I thought.

Anyway, we better go watch Senator Kerry's speech, which is about to come on. Thanks for all the good questions and sorry I could not get to more.


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