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."

Salon's Walter Shapiro sees "McCain's prospects dwindling to a point where even Kansas and Oklahoma may soon be dubbed 'swing states.' " And Tucker Carlson wrote on the Daily Beast blog: "It's over. Obama won."

If some journalists are excited by the prospect of the first African American president, many are also citing racial attitudes as a reason the polls might be overstating Obama's support. That enables them to hedge their bets a bit.

Any analysis, of course, must be grounded in reality. McCain, tied to the most unpopular president in a generation, is being dragged down by a massive financial crisis and record-breaking public sentiment that the country is on the wrong track. His choice of Sarah Palin is proving increasingly controversial. The number of self-identified Democrats now exceeds those who call themselves Republicans. And McCain is defending traditionally red states while Obama is trying to pick off several that voted for President Bush four years ago.

McCain has also been hurt by conservative commentators -- including David Brooks, George Will, Kathleen Parker, Peggy Noonan and Christopher Buckley -- who have chastised the Arizonan's campaign and the choice of Palin. (Buckley, in fact, lost his National Review column last week for the heresy of backing Obama.) The saturation coverage of Colin Powell's "Meet the Press" endorsement of Obama yesterday -- his remarks outside the NBC studio carried live on cable, his words leading many newspaper Web sites -- added weight to the media verdict that Obama has sealed the deal.

"You've got people on the right side of the political equation saying the McCain campaign's screwed up and he's picked a running mate who is unqualified," Greenfield says. That adds to the impression of a sinking ship.

But the theater-criticism aspect of modern journalism is a factor as well. After McCain's most aggressive performance in the final debate, much of the media focus was not on his specific attacks but whether he looked angry and exasperated while Obama stayed calm and collected. Is criticism valid only if it makes your opponent whine or tear up?

McCain's invocation of Joe the Plumber to make the case against Obama's tax policies dissolved in a series of dispatches about how Joe Wurzelbacher is not a licensed plumber, he's not in the high-income bracket targeted by Obama, and what's more, his first name isn't Joe. And McCain is never going to draw the kind of attention for his mortgage bailout plan that he did for telling David Letterman he "screwed up" by canceling an earlier appearance, or that Palin did in appearing with Tina Fey on Saturday night.

For all the complaints that the media swoon over Obama -- he has garnered editorial endorsements in recent days from The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times -- journalists are ultimately driven by electoral math. If McCain were to make a comeback in the almighty polls, the narrative would abruptly change. If the numbers don't move, the chatter about an Obama presidency will grow louder, perhaps drowning out the campaign's final days.

Back in Action

Fox News is expected to announce today the hiring of a new contributor, a veteran national security correspondent who has shared a Pulitzer Prize.

Her name is Judith Miller, and she is nothing if not controversial. Miller left the New York Times in 2005 after testifying in the trial of former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby that he had leaked her information about a CIA operative. Miller's conduct in the case, which led to her serving 85 days in jail for initially refusing to testify, drew rebukes from the Times executive editor and some of her colleagues.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Miller reported stories on the search for Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be untrue, some of which were cited in a Times editor's note acknowledging the flawed coverage. Miller, now with the conservative Manhattan Institute, wrote when she left the paper that she had "become a lightning rod for public fury over the intelligence failures that helped lead our country to war."

Miller will be an on-air analyst and will write for Fox's Web site. "She has a very impressive résumé," says Senior Vice President John Moody. "We've all had stories that didn't come out exactly as we had hoped. It's certainly something she's going to be associated with for all time, and there's not much anyone can do about that, but we want to make use of the tremendous expertise she brings on a lot of other issues. . . . She has explained herself and she has nothing to apologize for."

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