Safety in Numbers? Poll-Driven Press Goes Out on a Limb

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

The network maps are bathed in blue, the pundits contemplating a landslide, the conservative columnists preparing for the indignities of an Obama administration.

With the numbers breaking Barack Obama's way, it's hardly surprising that poll-driven journalists are suggesting, insinuating or flat-out forecasting a Democratic victory. But could they affect the outcome? And what if they turn out to be wrong about John McCain being toast?

"One piece of press bias is they don't like losers," says CBS correspondent Jeff Greenfield. "When the whiff of defeat surrounds a campaign, the press picks up on it the way sharks smell blood in the water, and then it becomes a feedback loop."

NBC's political map has Obama at 264 electoral votes, just short of the required 270. Political director Chuck Todd told viewers that Obama is "one state away" and says he doesn't see how McCain can catch up.

"I think we have to be responsible," says Todd, adding that he won't hesitate to put Obama over 270 if his analysis supports it. "It'd be worse if somehow we were withholding it. That's crazy too. It looks like you're trying to create drama."

CNN projected Obama leading in states with 277 electoral votes last week, based on a new poll giving the freshman senator a 10-point lead in Virginia. "This is only a snapshot of where the individual states are," says political director Sam Feist. "We're not suggesting that Barack Obama has won this election." ABC's George Stephanopoulos says Obama would win more than 300 electoral votes if the election were held now.

But polls change, as many journalists were reminded when they wrongly predicted that Obama would beat Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary. McCain accused the national media last week of having "written us off," as they did so embarrassingly last year.

"It's obvious the media have a preferred candidate in the race," says McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb. "It's obvious the media are eager to seal the fate of John McCain." At the same time, he says, "we know we have some ground to make up. We don't want our people to be demoralized looking at poll numbers that are rather erratic and that we don't think are reliable."

Obama, for his part, warned against cockiness last week when "the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked."

"I don't think it's particularly helpful," says Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "And the people who are making these pronouncements are ignoring recent history that have shown very close results. This is a closely divided electorate, and we expect that nationally and in battleground states this race is going to go down to the wire."

News stories have hung their handicapping on partisans. McCain "failed to allay Republican concerns that the presidential race may be slipping beyond his grasp," says the Los Angeles Times. Republican leaders said "they were worried Mr. McCain was heading for defeat," says the New York Times. "Democratic strategists are now optimistic that the ongoing crisis could lead to a landslide Obama victory," says Politico. And Newsweek has the senator from Illinois on the cover yet again today, with the headline "How a President Obama would govern a center-right country." Not much doubt there.

Opinion writers are even bolder in flouting Yogi Berra's dictum that it ain't over till it's over. "The Democrats are on the verge of a strange victory," writes National Review Editor Rich Lowry. "If Obama is elected, they will arguably have won the most left-wing government in American history."

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