Arguably, we have never had as stunning and decisive a turn of momentum in a presidential race in just four days. But part of the failure to anticipate Bloomberg’s flop, Biden’s smashing victory and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) crushing disappointment stemmed from a blizzard of bad punditry.
Here are a couple of myths and misleading angles that populated coverage of the race:
- Bloomberg’s numbers signaled real support, not merely name recognition. (In fact, his support was 3,000 miles wide and an inch deep.)
- You must have a flock of field offices and millions of dollars in ad buys to win across the country. (Biden had few offices and virtually no ads in states he won.)
- The Democratic Party had moved far left. (The great middle of the party is firmly center-left.)
- Policy papers and debate performances drive results. (Warren failed spectacularly at the ballot box.)
- Big crowds signify big vote totals. (Sanders’s big crowds did not translate to as many wins as his supporters hoped for.)
- Sanders had an army of new, younger voters. (They never materialized, but white suburbanites and African Americans desperate to get rid of Trump turned out in droves for Biden.)
Part of the disconnect between coverage and results stems from an industry of prognosticators who simply extend current conditions into the future, minimizing the enormous unpredictability in politics. This includes extrapolating nonrepresentative votes (e.g. in lily-white New Hampshire or a Nevada caucus) to reach grand and erroneous conclusions. They provide a false sense of certainty and are generally blind to what real voters are telling us.
Reporters insist on rating candidates on metrics that college-educated professionals value (e.g. policy papers, debates, verbal acuity) while ignoring the qualities that actually attract voters. No matter how impressive Warren’s debate performance, voters felt they knew Biden and Biden knew them (an imperfect messenger, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar nevertheless had exactly the right formula). The media scorned Biden for obvious defects in debate performances, verbal clarity and fundraising without understanding the deep bonds of affection between him and Democratic voters.
The media largely gave a pass to Sanders, who has failed the “likability” test applied to female candidates. The grouchy screamer turned off suburban women (as we frequently observed) and failed to endear himself to African American voters, who are more centrist and less amenable to pie-in-the-sky promises (having been disappointed so many times by politicians who failed to deliver).
There is also a profound tendency to ignore or discount the votes of the most important Democratic constituency, African American voters. The notion that a candidate could be competitive without a significant share of these voters was preposterous, and too little of the commentary said so. African Americans’ support for Biden, pronounced and enduring for a year in the primary, was discounted or ignored altogether. Left-wing contempt for such voters, referring to Biden’s victories as the result of “corporate Democrats” (in South Carolina?!), attempted to erase such voters from the political picture.
This is not to say that all was knowable. To the contrary, politics — like all human endeavors — does not follow a linear progression. Voters are illogical, irrational and impulsive in their choices. That said, the media have stressed elements that are less important (e.g. money, crowds, debates) and do not spend enough time understanding voters who swung the House to Democrats (college-educated women) and who form the backbone of the party (African Americans). And they continue to take Twitter much, much too seriously.