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Media on ice: Those unpredictable primaries

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 7:33 AM

The press is gobsmacked to find Lisa Murkowski trailing some guy named Joe in the battle to hang onto her Senate seat.

Here's why news organizations were caught off guard:

1. Alaska is very far away.

2. No polls showed Murkowski in trouble.

3. She raised a ton of campaign cash.

4. See 1.

The overreliance on opinion polls is the central weakness in today's tweet-a-minute punditry--especially in state primaries where no one has the faintest idea who's going to turn out.

Remember how the press--even the Boston press--was convinced until the final days that Martha Coakley was going to beat Scott Brown, because she had a double-digit lead in the Massachusetts polls? Remember how the prognosticators predicted that Blanche Lincoln would lose, because the Arkansas polls were so tight and she was that most endangered of species--an incumbent?

But the Alaska misfire was worse, because the scant coverage didn't even suggest it was going to be a particularly competitive race against Joe Miller, whose one claim to fame was that he had Sarah Palin's endorsement.

Aug. 23, New York Times, from Alaska: "While Mr. Miller's profile has risen, experts expect Ms. Murkowski to be re-elected."

Aug. 22, Los Angeles Times, from Washington: "Palin's pick, attorney and political unknown Joe Miller, seems to have gained little traction against Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, according to political experts in the state."

July 30, Washington Post headline, from Alaska: "Murkowski is far ahead in Senate race, but faces Palin-endorsed rival."


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