Correction to This Article
This column incorrectly says that the Associated Press had erroneously projected, based on exit polls, that Hillary Rodham Clinton would win the Feb. 5 Democratic primary in Missouri. The AP says exit polls played no part in its projection.

Campaign Story Lines, All Knotted Up

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

In the seven days before Super Tuesday, Mike Huckabee was featured in a grand total of 2 percent of presidential campaign stories.

The media -- that is, the same media that all but ignored him before he won the Iowa caucuses in January -- were selling the Republican race as a two-man showdown. John McCain was a significant presence in 37 percent of stories and Mitt Romney in 21 percent, says a study of newspaper, television, radio and online coverage by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Talk about betting on the wrong horse. Huckabee won five states -- which anchors and pundits treated as a stunning development -- and took Kansas and Louisiana on Saturday, while Romney abruptly dropped out.

Time and again, the media's preferred narratives for this campaign have collided with reality. Remember when journalists repeatedly declared that both nominations would be settled by Feb. 5? Scratch that. How about the blowout television and print coverage of Ted Kennedy anointing Barack Obama as the crown prince of Camelot? Hillary Clinton showed how little it mattered in the heart of Kennedy country, taking Massachusetts by 15 percentage points.

And the whole "back from the dead" story line for McCain exists mainly because journalists all but buried him when his fundraising collapsed last summer. (It would "take a miracle" for McCain to win the early primaries, CBS's Bob Schieffer said then.) Now he's made them look foolish by virtually wrapping up the GOP nomination.

Reporters consistently overestimate the importance of money in presidential campaigns: McCain was out of cash, and Huckabee never had any, so their chances were drastically downgraded. Romney gave his own campaign $50 million and his chances were constantly talked up.

There have been factual errors as well. The Associated Press blew a major call Tuesday, projecting Clinton the winner in Missouri based on exit polls, even though much of the St. Louis vote hadn't come in. The wire service withdrew the call 90 minutes later, after Obama moved ahead in the state he would soon win.

Another embarrassment was the Reuters/C-SPAN pre-election poll -- widely picked up online -- that gave Obama a 13-point lead in California. Instead, Clinton scored a 10-point win in the state. The poll also had Mitt Romney ahead by seven points in California; McCain easily carried the state. Pollster John Zogby, who conducted the survey, says he underestimated Hispanic turnout and overestimated black turnout.

The networks, however, were commendably cautious. In fact, CNN lagged as much as 90 minutes behind Fox and MSNBC in calling certain states. CNN executives say they were more concerned with making accurate calls than quick ones.

The media have long been trying to winnow the field, as John Edwards complained while struggling for a smidgen of attention against Obama and Clinton. One reason for the recent decline in Huckabee coverage is that his low-budget campaign, desperate to save money, dropped its press plane, making it difficult for correspondents to follow him. But Huckabee was also dismissed as a marginal figure after mediocre showings in several states following his Iowa win. Most of the meager newspaper and television coverage he did get focused on whether he was a spoiler, helping McCain by drawing conservative votes from Romney.

Huckabee's secret weapon was that he was available for every imaginable television show, where his one-liners made him a marketable guest. He made 19 live appearances between 10 p.m. Tuesday and 8 a.m. Wednesday, then proceeded to hit "Hardball," "Your World With Neil Cavuto," "Mad Money," "Tucker," "Glenn Beck" and "World News" -- and the next day played air hockey (with individual states as pieces) with Stephen Colbert. He told CNN that he won Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and his native Arkansas "going against the head winds of talk radio and the pundits saying that I had simply disappeared. I wasn't even relevant, didn't matter."

After Tuesday, one interviewer after another -- Matt Lauer, Harry Smith, Robin Roberts, Wolf Blitzer -- asked Huckabee if he would accept an offer to be McCain's running mate, something no active presidential candidate would ever acknowledge. Newspaper stories explored the question as well.

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