So I'm watching some cable news show yesterday afternoon. (It's either that or Maury Povich, and there's only so much I can take of hillbillies fighting over junior's paternity.) I think it was CNN, but it could just as easily have been Fox, MSNBC, or the Home Shopping Network. Anyway, three reporters are busily dissecting the latest poll numbers from this endless presidential campaign with all the breathless excitement of a thirteen-year old boy who has just discovered the naughty side of the internet.
Hillary's down! Huckabee's up! Look at that! Obama's rising, Rudy's falling, Mitt's in trouble! Could John McCain be staging a comeback? Is John Edwards on the brink of disaster? Is Duncan Hunter always as pissed off as he looks? Does Ron Paul really want to sell off the Marine Corps to Blackwater? (I made some of these up.)
Soon, however, the assembled scribes doff their beanies and reach for their thinking caps. It is time for some hard analysis. Their faces turn serious and their eyes narrow. Voices deepen by at least an octave.
It was clear, they agreed, that Hillary Clinton's shaky performance two debates ago had punctured her aura of inevitability. (I'm fairly sure that, without these pundit shows, the word "inevitability" would not even exist.) Plus, she had been mean lately, criticizing her opponent, and that had reminded voters that many of them still think she's an evil, soul-sucking harpy (I'm paraphrasing here). As for Mike Huckabee, unlike the other Christian conservatives running on the Republican side, he's Christian-er and conservative-er, which appeals to the sort of pro-life, pro-war Iowans who yearn for a candidate who has absolutely no chance of winning California or New York. Huckabee also tells funny jokes, the pundits say, and seems very comfortable with himself on stage, unlike the nervously Nixonian Giuliani and the strangely robotic Romney (again, paraphrasing).
Things went on like this for several minutes. Another theory, another explanation. The role of Bill Clinton, the Pat Robertson factor, the effectiveness of television spots, the phases of the moon. By the time they were done, our pundits had mined the entire vein of insight, torn through the granite below, and practically dug a hole to Shanghai. Every possible explanation for these mysterious polling fluctuations had been offered. Except one.
Maybe the reason Hillary is falling and Huckabee is rising is because the media have spent the past month obsessing over her missteps and his successes.
Somehow, the reporters, the talking heads, the hangers on, the masters of the 24/7 news machine actually believe that they are exogenous to the whole process. Senator Clinton did, in fact, have a few problems during one of the recent candidate forums. Former Governor Huckabee did shine during last week's YouTube debate. But, as usual, almost nobody was watching! Instead, most voters saw only post-debate story after story featuring Clinton's worst moments and Huckabee's best. By the time the coverage was complete, the impact was as though Hillary had lost twelve straight debates and Huck had won at least ten.
I understand all of this, of course. Post-debate coverage necessarily isolates the most interesting and dramatic sound bites and plays them over and over again until they become part of the national conversation. Two decades later, most Americans probably believe that the 1988 Vice Presidential debate went something like this:
Judy Woodruff (Moderator): Welcome to the 1988 Vice Presidential debate.
Lloyd Bentsen (to Dan Quayle): You're no Jack Kennedy.
(Quayle faints and is attended to by laughing paramedics.)
Woodruff: Thank you, and good night from Omaha.
My point is not that the there is anything inherently wrong with the coverage. Rather, the media's inability—or unwillingness—to address their own role in the movement of opinion polls is either disingenuous or really, really clueless. Hillary Clinton has dropped in recent surveys because of consecutive weeks of uninterrupted bad press. Mike Huckabee has taken a tiny lead in Iowa because he has received nothing but praise from the pundits for a solid month. Why is it so difficult for the cable anchors simply to come out and admit this?
The other thing, too, is that this happens every time. Every freaking time. We get to about November or December of the pre-election year, nobody has actually voted yet, viewers are getting bored of the same old stories, and the media decide it's time to play "pin the scandal on the frontrunner". So they look for a chink in the armor and, upon finding it, gang up on whoever happens to be leading the race. At the same time, they select some politician they personally like, or whose dark horse candidacy makes for good copy, and they begin reporting on his—it's never been a her—growing momentum. Reagan and Bush in 1980; Mondale and Hart in 1984; Clinton and Tsongas in 1992; Dole and Buchanan in 1996; Bush and McCain in 2000; Kerry and Dean in 2004.
If it makes Hillary and Rudy/Romney feel any better, the frontrunner usually ends up winning regardless. But really, don't these so-called journalists know about anything that happened prior to six months ago? You'd swear they must be dumbfounded to see the first robin show up each spring. ("An unexpected robin sighting in Washington today. Are more on the way? We'll have a panel of experts weigh in with their views. Stay tuned. You're in the Situation Room.")