Media Blow It Again

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008 9:13 AM

At the outset, the pundits seemed ticked that their expected story line--an Obama blowout--was failing to materialize.

What about those pre-election polls we all based our blather on?

When the cable networks couldn't predict at 8 p.m. that Hillary Clinton would lose, the commentators began wondering if she would declare herself the Comeback Kid--as her husband did 16 years ago--if she lost by "only" a few points.

As the evening dragged on, the commentators had to consider the possibility that Hillary's "showing of vulnerability," as Tom Brokaw put it, might have helped her, and that Bill Clinton might have boosted her chances after all. In other words, that the coverage had missed the point.

This was delicious. The coverage had been so out of control there was speculation about when Hillary might have to drop out. Polls giving Barack Obama an 8- or 10-point lead were accepted as fact. The news surrounding the former first lady had been uniformly negative for days. She's done everything wrong, Obama has done everything right. She got too emotional in the diner. People just didn't like her. She campaigned in boring prose and Obama in soaring poetry (to use her analogy). Bill was hurting her. A campaign shake-up was on the way. An era was ending. Some pundits were predicting a 20-point Obama margin.

And then the voters actually went to the polls.

The result: Dewey Defeats Truman.

Let's review yesterday's papers:

New York Times: "Key campaign officials may be replaced. She may start calling herself the underdog. Donors would receive pleas that it is do-or-die time. And her political strategy could begin mirroring that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican rival, by focusing on populous states like California and New York whose primaries are Feb. 5. Everything is on the table inside Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign if she loses the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, her advisers say."

The Washington Post: "Obama has opened up a clear lead, and a second victory over Clinton would leave the New York senator's candidacy gasping for breath."

Chicago Tribune: "With a cluster of new polls in New Hampshire showing Obama building a substantial lead over the New York senator on the eve of the primary, the state appeared poised to play its storied role in humbling perceived front-runners in the contest for the presidency."

Boston Herald: "She's So Yesterday," with a cover shot of the old Beatles record.

That was then. This is now.

"A big night for Hillary Clinton," Tim Russert said last night, even as the race was too close to call.

"A stunner," said Brian Williams.

And then, at 10:31, MSNBC projected Hillary as the winner. CNN and Fox followed suit 15 minutes later, and the scrambling began. Spin was modified, explanations revised.

"One of the greatest political upsets in American political history," Russert said.

"Bill Clinton helped her in the end," Fox's Bill Kristol said.

CNN's Anderson Cooper questioned whether people lied to pollsters about supporting an African American candidate. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough raised the same issue. Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson said he didn't think it was a major factor.

But a lot of people made up their minds in the last 24 hours--too late to be caught by the almighty polls.

Now to the coverage.

NYT: "Her victory in the Democratic primary on Tuesday night was portrayed by her campaign as a stunning turnabout. Given how dire her situation had appeared just hours earlier, the spin was not unjustified."

LAT: "She became the first female candidate ever to win a major-party primary and took a significant step toward becoming the nation's first female president."

WP: "It provided a huge psychological boost to the Clinton campaign, just as the results Tuesday buoyed Republican John McCain, and instantly deflated the almost giddy sense of anticipation inside Obama's headquarters."

NY Post: "Hillary Rodham Clinton scored a surprise come-from-behind victory over Barack Obama in yesterday's New Hampshire primary, resurrecting a political campaign that was on the brink of collapse."

Daily News: "A Clinton loyalist said internal polling found New Hampshire women were overcome with sympathy when Clinton choked up publicly in a diner Monday under the stress of her expected loss."

John Dickerson: "Democrats like a fighter. Maybe that's the simplest reason Hillary Clinton pulled out a surprise victory in New Hampshire. Before her campaign even arrived here, her aides were promising they'd take the fight to Obama. In the five days between the two contests, the Clinton campaign worked hard to bring Obama down to earth."

On the Republican side, CNN, Fox and MSNBC all declared McCain the victor over Romney at 8:11. That's right, John McCain, who the media geniuses all told us was mortally wounded last summer, battled back with 102 New Hampshire town meetings, despite the fact that he was close to broke. It certainly didn't hurt that the war he champions is going better, or that virtually every Granite State paper endorsed him.

This is a big win for McCain, but the pundits kept insisting that the GOP race is wide open and that Mitt Romney is not done. He might, they said, win Michigan, where his father was governor. But there's no getting around it: Romney, with a huge war chest, had gambled on winning the first two states and lost both, including the one next door to where he was governor. The guy even has a summer home in Wolfeboro.

"Isn't this a devastating defeat for him?" Chris Wallace asked Romney spokesman Kevin Madden.

By the way, 30 percent in exit polls say Romney ran the most unfair campaign. When I was in New Hampshire last week, a number of voters told me they were turned off by Mitt's negative ad bombardment.

One thing is clear: After doing it in 2000, McCain is, again, the president of New Hampshire. But how much of a bounce does he get?

Bill Schneider noted that Mac beat Mitt by a slightly greater margin among Republicans than among independents, showing that John has more of a party base than he did when he lost the nomination to George Bush.

"A decisive victory . . . John McCain is back," said Pat Buchanan, the only pundit last night who has won a New Hampshire primary. But Bill Bennett would say only that McCain was "alive" because conservatives are mad at him over such issues as immigration.

Scarborough quickly interpreted this as "perfect" news for Rudolph Giuliani's late-inning strategy. Mike Huckabee wins Iowa, McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney (maybe) wins Michigan, and the race is wide open.

But I know one McCain friend who believes that if McCain wins Michigan next week--and many people forget he won it in 2000--he's got the nomination.

"When the pundits declared us finished," McCain told his supporters, "I told them I'm going to New Hampshire, where the voters don't let you make their decision for them." Reading a prepared text, however, kind of squandered the moment.

Rich Lowry: "Did crying work for Hillary? Every man I know hated it, and every woman thought it made her more sympathetic."

As for the Republicans:

NYT: "After Senator John McCain's victory here on Tuesday, the Republican field is more scrambled than ever, with the battleground now shifting to a series of states where each of the leading candidates believes he holds certain advantages."

WP: "Through a series of events -- unforeseen by even the most optimistic supporters -- McCain may be the most fortunate politician in the 2008 race, both supporters and detractors say. Perhaps more than anything else, he has been blessed by this year's opposition."

Chicago Trib: "The victory by the 71-year-old senator came little more than six months after McCain's campaign was believed all but dead following a major staff shake-up and a treasury that turned out to be virtually bankrupt."

Washington Times: "Sen. John McCain of Arizona yesterday rose from the ashes to win the nation's first primary, delivering a humiliating loss to Mitt Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who held a commanding, double-digit lead in the state just a month ago."

Andrew Sullivan: "He faced a much-better financed establishment candidate in Romney, he stuck with his immigration position, he kept up a schedule that would have drained a man half his age, and he stuck with the surge, a tactic that worked far better in damping down violence than I expected, even if it has not achieved its critical political objectives . . . This is beginning to look like a McCain-Huckabee race."

The following, noted by Jake Tapper, doesn't strike me as HRC's strongest argument:

"Perhaps hoping to pivot away from her unusual comments criticizing Sen. Barack Obama by comparing him to Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered great speeches, and herself to President Lyndon Johnson, who actually passed civil rights laws."

Does she really want to concede that her opponent is MLK?

Bill Clinton is becoming increasingly frustrated by the coverage of his wife:

"It is wrong that Senator Obama got to go through 15 debates trumpeting his superior judgment and how he had been against the war in every year, enumerating the years, and never got asked one time - not once - 'Well, how could you say that when you said in 2004 you didn't know how you would have voted on the resolution? You said in 2004 there was no difference between you and George Bush on the war. And you took that speech you're now running on off your Web site in 2004. And there's no difference in your voting record and Hillary's ever since' . . . Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."

I would say Obama's comments should absolutely be reported by the press. But part of a campaign's job is to put out such material. Why hasn't the Hillary camp raised this until now? Because it inevitably brings up her 2002 vote for the war?

I kind of winced when John Edwards, after Hillary's choked-up moment in a coffee shop, said we need a commander-in-chief who shows "strength" and "resolve." But my reaction was nothing compared to that of the Nation's Katha Pollitt:

"John Edwards just lost my vote. How dare he take cheap shots at Hillary Clinton for letting her eyes mist over (not 'crying' as was widely reported) at a meeting with voters in Portsmouth N.H.? This is a man who has used his most private tragedies--his wife's cancer, his son's fatal accident -- in his campaign in a way that had a woman done the same she would surely be accused of 'oprahfying' the lofty realm of politics.

"This is also the man who promoted himself early on as the real women's candidate, and who has repeatedly used his likeable wife to humanize his rather slick and one-dimensional persona. Today he deployed against Hillary the oldest, dumbest canard about women: they're too emotional to hold power . . .

"Ooh, right, we need a big strong manly finger on that nuclear button! Even if that finger has spent most it its life writing personal injury briefs in North Carolina, which, when you come to think of it, is not an obvious preparation for commander-in-chiefhood."

Before last night's results, we lurched into when-will-Hillary-drop-out mode. At RightWing Nuthouse, Rick Moran thinks she'll hang on for awhile:

"An educated guess on what is going on in Hillary's campaign would be that their polling shows a catastrophic drop in support nationwide from constituencies that she needs to win coupled with a significant de-emphasis on experience being the most important attribute voters are looking for in a candidate. Since she built her campaign on those foundations, when there is a collapse, the writing is on the wall . . .

"Her dilemma on when to get out is made more difficult by the historic nature of her campaign. There are millions of women who would love to cast a vote for her even if she wasn't going to win. That's why I think she will wait until after Super Tuesday before giving in to what is apparently the inevitable."

Obama, working with Condi Rice to calm things in Kenya?

It was inevitable: With all the positive Obama hype, someone was going to play the role of debunker. Christopher Hitchens seizes the mantle:

"To put it squarely and bluntly, is it because he is or is it because he isn't? To phrase it another way, is it because of what he says or what he doesn't say? Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is the current beneficiary of a tsunami of drool. He sometimes claims credit on behalf of all Americans regardless of race, color, creed, blah blah blah, though his recent speeches appear also to claim a victory for blackness while his supporters--most especially the white ones--sob happily that at last we can have an African-American chief executive. Off to the side, snarling with barely concealed rage, are the Clinton machine-minders, who, having failed to ignite the same kind of identity excitement with an aging and resentful female, are perhaps wishing that they had made more of her errant husband having already been 'our first black president.'

"Or perhaps not. Isn't there something pathetic and embarrassing about this emphasis on shade? And why is a man with a white mother considered to be 'black,' anyway? Is it for this that we fought so hard to get over Plessy v. Ferguson? Would we accept, if Obama's mother had also been Jewish, that he would therefore be the first Jewish president? The more that people claim Obama's mere identity to be a 'breakthrough,' the more they demonstrate that they have failed to emancipate themselves from the original categories of identity that acted as a fetter upon clear thought."

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