David Ceasar: Predicting the unpredictable

It was as if two of my favorite television shows – “E.R.” and “The West Wing” – merged together and became reality last week. A candidate for president of the United States had been pronounced dead, and then miraculously was brought back to life nearly an instant later.

Did the New York junior senator’s campaign dramatically change in the course of a few hours? No. The people of New Hampshire voted. It is that simple.

That’s what primary elections used to be about – people voting for the best candidate or the one most likely to beat the opposing party’s nominee. Today, the primary season has become a circus, with much of the blame on the mass media and the culture of punditry that is ubiquitous on television, online and in print. The supplanting of straightforward reporting by prediction-driven commentary has damaged the institution of voting.

Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Granite State in wake of the media discounting her win is emblematic of serious flaws in the system. One such problem is journalists’ and pundits’ affinity for prognosticating election results. A domino effect can ensue whereby undecided voters would be more inclined to get on board with the presumed (or assumed) winner.

The top editors at The Politico, both career political journalists, candidly discussed how the national media has been botching its role of covering the presidential campaigns. “New Hampshire was jarring because it offered in highly concentrated form all the dysfunctions and maladies that have periodically afflicted political journalism for years.”

Appropriately self-deprecating, editors John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei explained: “Our own publication, Politico, did its part in promoting several of these flimsy story lines. We used predictive language in stories. We amplified certain trends and muffled the caveat, which perhaps should be printed with every story, like a surgeon general’s warning: ‘We don’t know what will happen until voters vote.'”

That’s the whole point to a free election, after all. Under the old paradigm, the people would vote, and then the news media would report on the results. Today, this model has been inverted, and the bulk of the coverage has been the lead-up to the elections, replete with so-called political “analysis.” Everyone on television these days is an analyst or special contributor, but what are they really contributing? Usually, it is not a fact-driven evaluation, but rather opinion, speculation and partisan rhetoric lacking in substance. And all this at the expense of covering sobering issues, such as the Iraq War, Iranian nuclear armament, a slumping economy, etc.

Much of the prediction-driven coverage relies on obsessing over the latest poll. As the expression goes, the only poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But professional public opinion surveys can be quite accurate and useful. Reporters and television producers should be wary to rely on them too much for their coverage, and be especially careful about putting them in context.

Polls are a snapshot of the general mood of a very closed time period, with a known margin of statistical error as well as various types of incalculable errors. They are clearly not the end-all, be-all of forecasting election results – as New Hampshire demonstrated.

The morning of that state’s primary, a front-page analysis story by The Washington Post asserted, “Obama has opened up a clear lead, and a second victory over Clinton would leave the New York senator’s candidacy gasping for breath.” National political writer Dan Balz called her campaign “discombobulated” and implied that its strategy was out of touch with reality because a recent poll put Barack Obama ahead by 10 percentage points.

The Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, catalogued many other examples of reporters jumping the gun on declaring Clinton’s campaign dead. He also said John McCain’s win in the Granite State disproved the assumptions about his viability. “And who, exactly, had been burying, writing off and otherwise performing last rites on the Arizona senator? It was, of course, America’s journalists.”

The political reporters do have a predilection for covering the horserace aspects of a campaign – who’s up, who’s down, who’s going to pull ahead. But the burden of responsibility shouldn’t be entirely on their shoulders; the pundits on television and the campaign officials the journalists talk to are guilty as well. Everyone is interested in knowing the results ahead of time, and rightfully so, given how long the campaign season has lasted thus far.

There is a place for commentary and analysis during this process, but in moderation. The sheer volume of conjecture before and after each state’s primary contest has chipped away at the foundation of the elections. Journalists and the political operatives that they bring to the American people must show greater restraint in their penchant for prognostication.

The writer, a master’s candidate in political management, is The Hatchet’s senior editor.

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