Editorial: Why pundits use storylines that too often miss the story

In four elections Tuesday, voters in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and California showed a strong bias for local and personal politics that had little ties to the national scene, though too many media pundits tried to make it seem like the tide was changing across the nation’s political landscape.
While headlines proclaimed that it “wasn’t 2008 anymore,” and that the Republican “sweep” was a warning to Democrats of things to come in the mid-term elections next year, we would hope most readers understand that the headlines serve the political pundits better than the public.
As Middlebury College political science professor Matt Dickinson explains in his blog on presidential politics, “this narrative serves journalists well because it allows them to tie three (or four) otherwise disparate events into a unified story that provides an easy-to-assess gauge of (President) Obama’s political clout.” Consider, suggests Dickinson, columnist Michael Barone’s piece on the Web site Real Clear Politics, in which he cites Tuesday’s four contests (there was also a congressional race in California’s 10th district in San Francisco): “In other words, the 2009 contests are a reasonably fair test of the strength and durability of the Democratic majority that Obama and his ticket-mates assembled in 2008…”
But that, Dickinson says, is not the case.
“There is only one problem with this dominant narrative,” Dickinson continues, “it is almost certainly wrong. Rather than a referendum on Obama’s political clout, these three races (New Jersey, Virginia and New York) will be largely decided by factors that have nothing to do with Obama or his policies … Both elections will likely turn on whether the depth of the anti-incumbent sentiment fueled by job loss and the economic downturn can offset demographic trends that have favored Democrats in recent years.”
It is an astute observation that is backed up, oddly enough, by the pundits themselves further down in their own stories.
While the headline to Washington Post writer Dan Balz warned that it wasn’t 2008 anymore, Balz begins his piece with this: “Off-year elections can be notoriously unreliable as predictors of the future,” and two paragraphs later he noted that “neither gubernatorial election amounted to a referendum on the president, but the changing shape of the electorate in both states and the shifts among key constituencies revealed cracks in the Obama 2008 faction and demonstrated that, at this point, Republicans have the more energized constituency heading into next year’s midterm elections.” Fair enough.
Barone ends his piece, after explaining that the Democrat in Virginia had floundered throughout the race and that New Jersey Gov. Corzine’s popularity has hovered around a dismal 40 percent, with this summation: “Both parties will try to spin the results next week. But one thing seems clear. None of the Democrats seems likely to equal Obama’s 2008 percentages in these states or districts. None may even come close. But Republicans may find it difficult to convert the increasing unease with Democratic policies into Republican (or conservative) victories across the board.”
What’s insightful about Dickinson’s comments is not that he catches pundits, and their headline writers, making outlandish leaps of faith, but that he understands why these journalists (the television pundits are even worse) and the media outlets they represent portray the story as they do.
The storyline, Dickinson says, “reflects a ‘structural’ bias rooted in the economics of the news business, particularly the need to maintain an audience and to generate stories within a rapidly accelerating and increasingly competitive news cycle. The dominant news narrative suggests that the outcome of these elections ought to be interpreted as a referendum on the Obama administration.”
The headlines reflect that storyline. Readers who get into the meat of the columns and stories, read the caveats and disclaimers and find the nuances.
Careful readers would know that in New Jersey, the incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine has weathered a tough budget battle this past year and has lost significant popularity mainly due to the economic slump and charges of corruption and a crumbling road system. In Virginia, there is no incumbent and the Democrat has simply run a lousy campaign in a state that had been Republican for years prior. Surprisingly, in upstate New York, a split in the Republican party tossed the election to the Democrat, who was elected in a race to replace the Republican who took a job in the Obama administration. And in California, a Democrat was elected over a Republican challenger. (So, it’s really a 2-2 split, not a sweep.)
But rather than focus on the issues, Dickinson explains the election results in scientific terms. He notes, for example, that “since 1977, the party that won the White House the year before has lost the Virginia governor’s race every time, regardless of the president’s party. (Virginia began its off year elections in 1857, New Jersey began its in 1847.)” This year’s results reflected nine straight gubernatorial elections in which that was the case. “In political science,” Dickinson says, “that’s as close to a ‘law’ explaining a political phenomenon that one is going to find. But what’s the basis of this pattern? It primarily reflects structural dynamics derived from the different levels of voter turnout in presidential versus gubernatorial election years.”
He goes on to explain voter turnout, demographics, what motivates the electorate in off years and why the minority party has more to gain than the majority party in off years, and on and on. It’s all very interesting, of course, if you’re the type who finds in the predictably of patterns exciting … but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, which probably also explains why pundits and the news industry prefer headlines that simplify the story into an easily understandable narratives — even if you do have to read to the end of the story to discover the disclaimers.

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