Swing and a Miss in New Hampshire

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, January 13, 2008

Here's what happened in New Hampshire: Reporters lost their natural skepticism and took what they thought was happening and projected it far past the facts.

The experts were wrong, the polling a disaster. The Post, luckily, didn't poll late in New Hampshire and wasn't among those making a bad call. More on polling in a later column.

Even sage Dan Balz, The Post's senior political correspondent, missed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's resurgence. He said: "No one thought she would win, including her own people. Polling was misleading, but so, too, were signs on the ground. What happened is we all got swept up in a powerful story line and weren't attuned enough to signs to the contrary. That's the beauty of political reporting. It's always unpredictable and keeps us humble."

One of the most exciting campaign seasons in memory has sometimes blindsided The Post and other news media. A year ago, Clinton's nomination seemed a forgone conclusion. But reporters crowned her too early and, after Iowa, killed her too quickly. Barack Obama caught fire, and the flame blinded good sense.

Mike Huckabee? He was low in poll standings and fundraising, so he couldn't get on Page 1 of The Post for months. John McCain was triple dead after he cashiered most of his staff and ran out of money last summer. Until he was miraculously resurrected.

Reporters on the campaign trail talk to each other, pollsters and strategists, and a conventional wisdom forms. Post editorial writer Ruth Marcus, who's been reporting in Iowa and New Hampshire, offers a battleship analogy. "It takes a long time to turn it around. It's big and it's hard to go against the wake. When everyone you know is absolutely convinced that the issue is how many digits she's going to lose by, it's hard to not be in the party, especially when the masters of spin are reaffirming the story line."

Readers don't like that The Post and others focus on the top tier of candidates and ignore the rest. For those who feel this way, it was delicious to see Huckabee win in Iowa and McCain in New Hampshire. Iowa showed that front-runners can fall, and New Hampshire that they can pick themselves up again.

Democratic readers have rightly complained that John Edwards didn't get the coverage he deserved. Bill Richardson, Joseph Biden and Christopher Dodd, all credible candidates, got next to no coverage. News organizations can't cover everyone all the time, but those candidates deserved more. Readers with Republican leanings have peppered me with e-mail about the lack of coverage of Ron Paul's campaign. His ability to raise money online and draw loyal supporters has brought him more coverage than I thought he'd get.

The Post prides itself on political coverage, puts good reporters and money into it and is good at it. Here's what The Post is doing right:

-- If you're a politics junkie, The Post has lots of what you want, and the packaging has been sprightly and inviting.

-- Balz's definitive analyses and the way he set up the right questions before Iowa and New Hampshire have given readers needed context and authority.

-- Style adds humanity, and Dana Milbank's pieces have been terrific, putting a reader right in the action, as has Joel Achenbach's blog on The Trail.


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