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Opinion News outlets stand by their midterm debacle

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden arrive for a rally in Bowie, Md., on Nov. 7. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
10 min

Journalists, it turns out, are poor oceanographers.

As election returns rolled in on Nov. 8, a slow-motion realization settled in among Americans who had paid even casual attention to political news that a much-talked-about red wave of Republican midterm dominance wasn’t happening. In the end, Democrats retained their Senate majority and Republicans just barely took the House.

The supposed “red wave” wasn’t some concoction of the GOP cheerleaders on Fox News; it bounded into widespread respectability through reporting by mainstream outlets. What do they have to say about their reporting?

They stand by it.

History provided much of the surge behind the “red wave” reporting. Midterm elections have typically been unkind to the party in the White House, a circumstance hardly mitigated by President Biden’s low approval rating and uneven economic record. In light of those considerations, journalists were prone to credit polls and other data signaling a Republican romp in November. What’s more, polls in 2016 and 2020 overstated Democratic support, perhaps vesting a skepticism in analysts looking at 2022 polls showing head winds for Republicans.

Whatever its provenance, red-wave reporting had two peaks over the past year — one in the spring and early summer, when outlets such as The Post (“A likely 2022 red wave may sweep Trump apologists into office,” July 7) and CNN (“The Republican wave is building fast,” May 26) cited a climate hospitable to the GOP. That swell yielded to a momentary reversal when data portended a solid midterm showing for Democrats. But by mid-October, indicators started tipping back toward the GOP.

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Here’s a red-wave timeline. Please note that not all of the stories use the “red wave/red tsunami” catchphrases:

All these stories about Democrats in distress gave license to the blabbermouths on cable news and elsewhere to engage in speculation about just how thoroughly the “red wave” would swamp Democrats. A national mindset was thus forged.

Those who tuned in on the night of Nov. 8 without expectations of a Republican blowout were either careful students of political polling or just emerging from a wonderful place without WiFi. Such was the consensus that when Fox News host Jesse Watters early on election night proclaimed a “powerful wave election,” his remarks didn’t sound idiotic. That changed.

Now for the lessons from the media’s red-wave hype:

1) Democrats weren’t the only ones “scrambling” and “bracing.” It’s true that Democrats were clambering to hold their map together; they were surely bracing for bad results, too. Yet there was clearly a good amount of scrambling and bracing on the Republican side as well.

Regardless of where the always-nebulous “momentum” was headed, pivotal races — such as the Senate contests in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona — were nail-biting affairs all along, as the polling reflected. In the waning days of the campaign, Fox News host Sean Hannity pleaded with Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina to add Don Bolduc, a Republican Senate candidate from New Hampshire, to the list of races benefiting from his fundraising. “Done,” replied Graham. That’s some scrambling.

2) What do “Democrats” know, anyway? The red-wave oeuvre is littered with quotes — both on the record and anonymous — from this Democratic strategist or that liberal activist. Those quotes commonly bemoan the party’s sagging fortunes. “We thought for a little bit that we could defy gravity, but the reality is setting in,” Sean McElwee, head of a progressive polling outfit, told the Times for its Oct. 25 story.

That could be. But it could also be that the strategists and activists are deriving their own takes from some of the same, imperfect sources as journalists. Or perhaps they’re trying to upend conventional wisdom, expressing a take straight from the gut. In a Nov. 9 tweet, FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver dinged journalists who opted for “vibes” reporting over ultimately accurate polling that reflected Democratic competitiveness in key races.

3) Elections are vast. There were 435 House races, 35 Senate races and 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot in the 2022 midterms. To cover all that activity, the politico-industrial complex churned out thousands of polls and other data points, each of which could be invoked to support one argument or another. Or perhaps no argument at all.

An example: In its Oct. 17 story on the alleged Republican surge, the Times cited its own poll showing a 32-point swing among independent women: Whereas they supported Democrats by 14 points in September, they had shifted to support Republicans by 18 points. The Times called that turnabout “striking.” Days later, the Axios story on the “red tsunami” quoted an anonymous Democratic strategist, “We’re still winning independent women but not by much. Six weeks ago, we were winning them by double-digits. Now it’s close to 50-50.”

According to exit polling by the major TV networks, Democrats won independent women by 12 points. “You have so much data to pick from that you can always cherry-pick your way to a narrative about it,” Silver tells the Erik Wemple Blog. “There’s almost never any reason to cite one poll as opposed to consensus polling.”

4) Headlines! Some of the pieces highlighted above — including the Hill’s “red wave likely” article and The Post’s piece about Democrats’ map “slipping away” — feature careful analysis topped by overreaching headlines. Next time, news organizations should consider this formulation: “Midterms looking murky.”

5) News outlets are standing by their coverage. The Times released a statement — too long to include in full here — saying it’s “extremely proud” of its work. As for the gist of the coverage, the Times says it was “deliberate, rational and clear-eyed about the uncertainty surrounding political predictions.” Furthermore: “We invested heavily in trying to get as accurate a picture as we could for our audience. But we rely on what voters tell us, what polling data reflects, what we learn through reporting and what political parties and candidates believe to be the case.”

Matea Gold, national editor at The Post, issued this statement: “Our mission is to examine the shifting terrain of national politics and how both parties and individual candidates respond to unexpected developments. Our deeply reported coverage captured the anxiety inside campaigns and among political strategists across the board as they tried to assess the intention of voters and calibrated their approaches. We’re proud that our stories illuminated those forces in real time.”

A spokesperson for the New York Post says the paper “stands by all its journalism. There was certainly a red wave in New York.” To be clear, the New York Post predicted a nationwide red wave. CNN didn’t respond on the record to questions about its coverage. The Hill issued a statement saying that the headline and gist of its piece were “accurate” — and that its headline was similar to that of a Post story cited above for promoting the red wave. “Just as I assume you see no issue with The Post’s reporting or headline on the story from July 7, we see no issue with the Hill’s reporting or headline from Oct. 26,” wrote Nexstar Media Group spokesman Gary Weitman in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Lauren Easton, a spokeswoman for AP, wrote in an email: “AP tries to be as specific as possible with its word choices. AP’s midterm coverage largely used phrases such as ‘headwinds facing Democrats’ or ‘GOP’s sense of confidence’ to capture the sense of direction, rather than ‘red wave.’ ”

Multiple inquiries to Axios netted no answers.

Which is to say: Major media outlets promoted an inaccurate depiction of the national political mood heading into Election Day, and they have no stated regrets about it. And if they’re holding discussions on improving the coverage, they don’t care to disclose them.

We had a little more luck with opinionators. McCarthy replied with an extensive explanation as to why he stands by his analysis, even though the outcome he sketched out will take longer than expected. Olsen wrote a crow-eating column. Lane wrote in an email that the red-wave expectations “probably resulted from historical determinism, excessive faith in numerical indicators of public sentiment and good old fashioned herd mentality.”

To that, we would add another consideration, for which we have no hard data: Mainstream journalists, who are endlessly harangued for their alleged liberal bias, jump at opportunities to strut their evenhandedness, even when it backfires on them. This important dynamic in American political life lacks an acronym, so we’ll call it “Mainstream Media Bend-Over-Backward Syndrome.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.