The media’s reporting and analysis of the 2012 election is replete with two irrepressible canards: a phony notion of balance and a need to inflate the competitiveness of marquis races. Obviously, it’s literally true that even the most lopsided races are not over until they are over, so to speak, but the tendency of media analysts to break their backs trying to include positive and negative comments about both sides in campaign coverage is annoying and absurd. For example, ending every column with some version of “anything could happen” is often transparently absurd, if not dishonest.
So why do they do it?
I see two principle motivations for this tactic: worries about their own credibility and the relevance or newsworthiness of their efforts. No one wants to be attacked for being “in the tank” for a candidate or party and nobody wants to read analysis of elections in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The thing is, many races –especially for Congress- are far less competitive than the media coverage would have you believe.
Take the race I’m following most closely, the U.S. Senate race between Republican senator Scott Brown and Democratic nominee, Elizabeth Warren; I called the race very early for Warren based on what have come to be called “the fundamentals.” The present political environment nationally and huge Democratic structural advantages in the state all but guaranteed that a Democratic nominee with national fund raising and news making potential would beat Brown this year. His “special” election was just that. I rarely get much pushback from analysts privately on this, yet I haven’t found anyone willing to put this out there as their confident viewpoint. My own willingness to do so is frequently assumed to be evidence of my personal political perspective tainting my professional judgment; an assumption that ironically I’m poorly situated to dismiss. Gee, I sure hope I’m not “in the tank” and being read by no one.
The media analysis of the Brown-Warren race continues to paint a picture of a race being decided “as we speak” in a candidate/campaign-centered battle for the mythical “swing” voters that remains “too close to call.” Even now, less than six weeks from Election Day, the closeness of the media polls’ bottom lines continues to give life to this popular but deceptive narrative. However, the realities of the race are starting to creep into the media’s story line, a movement that may be related to changing trends beginning to show up in the more specific questions in the polls. If Brown and Warren really are neck and neck, why would Brown be employing transparently desperate tactics that both crumble under scrutiny and contradict the image of himself on which he has based his campaign? Why is Warren campaigning like an incumbent and Brown like a frightened challenger? Has Warren’s performance on TV and on the stump really improved enough to explain why Democrats and women are now flocking to her candidacy?
The reality is that the candidates’ personal performances and tactical choices reflect the state of the less newsworthy fundamentals I’ve been talking about in this race all along, not on the superficial ups and downs that dominate media coverage of elections. The reason the media is slowly turning toward the notion that “Warren’s message is beginning to resonate” is not because of any changes in the way she is delivering it. Her argument has always fit hand-in-glove with the fundamental factors driving the race; factors that have remained unchanged since she entered the race. It was always only a matter of time before her message would be perceived by the media as resonating.
If Brown’s camp had just taken this reality more seriously from the start they would surely have a better shot today. If, as I have said from the beginning, Brown could turn Warren into Cruella Deville by Labor Day, making her so personally unacceptable that some wavering Democrats might not come home in the end and progressive enthusiasm might be dampened, Brown might have had a shot to win. Barring something I certainly cannot foresee; I can’t help but think it’s now too late for Brown to stop Warren.
It’s almost October and guess what? Democrats are coming home. The indisputable facts that the U.S. Senate is a place where national issues are at stake and partisan control of national issues is at stake are increasingly obvious to voters, as is the realization that neither Warren’s or Brown’s “character” is relevant to this big picture reality. None of this is happening simply because Warren is starting to communicate better, or even because Brown’s campaign is under-performing in some obvious way. It was ALWAYS clear that this would happen. Brown could not stop the tidal wave. All he ever could do was mitigate the damage by discrediting Warren early, effectively, and consistently while working hard to build campaign infrastructure and political alliances around the state and praying for a Todd Akin type slip up by his Democratic opponent. For a while it did appear that Brown was making headway in building crucial local alliances, but the endorsement of Elizabeth Warren by one of the state’s most powerful and well known professional political fense sitters, Boston Mayor Tom Menino, is strong evidence that Brown has not made sufficient progress in this regard.
For all practical purposes, Brown lost this race the day Warren became his opponent instead of some B-team insider with nothing to lose in taking on an incumbent U.S. Senator, which ironically is EXACTLY what Brown was in the 2010 special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat. He was nominated and elected because neither his own state party nor his opponent’s sufficiently recognized the absence of the fundamental conditions that normally favor Democrats in U.S. Senate races in the state. So Brown will lose his bid for re-election in part because he failed to appreciate the degree to which his own “special” election victory wasn’t about him. Had he grasped this reality, he would have run a much more aggressive, challenger-like re-election campaign, knowing that the 2012 electorate would look much more like the 2010 general electorate in Massachusetts, not the 2010 special electorate that put him in office.
When the race ends on election night, the media will begin telling the tale of this race and while superior organization, registration advantages, and coattails will be discussed, the real emphasis will be on the personal performances of the candidates and their campaign advisors. The super human campaign image the media created of Brown will be transformed into stories with the time-tested theme of how sometimes the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Persistent doubts about Warren’s personal charisma, media savvy, and people skills will provide fodder for stories about how deceptively good she really was in this respect, or how she changed tactics just in time to save her candidacy. All the Democratic doubters will take credit for lighting the fire under her campaign that led to her “come from behind” victory. Her campaign theme of being “a fighter” will be elevated to “I feel your pain” status by some pundits. Before long the easily identified fundamentals that have always been the key to the race, that have always pointed to a Warren win, will recede completely into the background and the story of this race will be all about personal performance, triumph, and failure in a media drive process.
This is the part of the essay where I pretend to believe that “anything could happen” or “it ain’t over yet.” Instead, I think I have an ethical obligation as a political scientist to rest my case on the power of my assumptions. If my forecast misses the mark, I will echo the sentiments of that venerated sage of 1970s late night television, Roseanne Roseannadanna and say “Oh. That’s very different. Never mind.”