“Might” of Politico

Two stories on 2012 show the website stretching

Midterms are over, the prez is in Asia, and Olbermann’s back at his desk—what’s a niche political site to do?

Lean forward, of course (with apologies to MSNBC).

A quick glance at Politico’s website today reveals that the site is keeping an eye on 2012 as it rummages through the debris left by the 2010 wave. It’s a reasonable enough focus for the political site and has offered up some interesting reporting, such as this Jeanne Cummings piece on the White House’s new openness to outside donors.

But it’s offered up a lot of pat “maybes” and “mights,” as well. And while speculation on the fortunes of political players is the bread-and-butter of an election-watcher like Politico, at least in two instances this past twenty-four hours, they are clearly stretching too far.

Take this short story on the 2012 potential of failed South Carolina Democratic Senate Alvin Greene—he of the misdemeanor and felony charges and the numerous late-night punch lines. Kasie Hunt’s report, “Alvin Greene mulls presidential bid” opens with this titillating HuffPo-ready lede:

Alvin Greene might run for president.

What’s this? Greene, the candidate whom Jim DeMint pummeled last week, has begun raising money through a PAC? No? Okay, has he established an exploratory committee to divine his presidential chances? Not that either? Hmmm. Has he started airing attack ads against incumbent President Obama?

It’s much less exciting than that.

Greene, the unlikely Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina who lost overwhelmingly to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint last week, called the state Democratic Party on Tuesday to ask how much it would cost to run for president.

Lest you should think there was no reporting done here, read this:

“Maybe. I’ll have to see,” Greene told POLITICO when asked whether he was considering filing to run for president. He confirmed that he called the state party Tuesday to ask about the fee. The state party’s spokeswoman, Keiana Page, confirmed that someone called the party Tuesday asking about the presidential filing fee but said that the caller did not identify himself.

“Maybe” it’s a little unfair to poke fun at a piece like this and wonder why Politico bothered running it—if you make a call and realize there’s no story, in the old days, when column inches were precious, you didn’t run it. Alas, today there is always space on the web, talk show hosts always need more fodder (Conan’s back), and as ever, there’s always a legitimate interest in a candidate from some corner of the room. Greene did manage to get 359,069 votes on Election Day.

The bigger worry is another “maybe” story on Politico’s main page today, Alexander Burns’s “Grim omens for Scott Brown’s future.” As with the Greene piece, it begins with a big “might” on 2012.

Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who launched the GOP’s midterm insurgency with his special election win last January, just might be a dead man walking.

His polling numbers are still solid. There’s no Democratic war-horse candidate primed to take him on. Brown’s campaign coffers are full, and his celebrity lets him command a national following.

But virtually every result from last week’s elections in Massachusetts offered up grim omens for Brown’s future. His party failed to capture a single high-profile office in the state. Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick, despite early signs of vulnerability, won reelection by a convincing 6-point margin over Charlie Baker, a health insurance executive viewed as a star by state and national Republicans.

We like Burns—and you can see him hard at work in this CJR-produced video about political reporters covering the midterms—but this is another example of Politico generating a story that probably isn’t there. Note the key words in those three grafs: “might” and “still” and “but.” It’s as if Burns is saying there might be a story here; still, don’t forget these facts show there might not be a story; but I am going to give you a story anyway.

And that is pretty much how it goes. Burns, who also wrote Politico’s story on Brown’s January win (“Brown pulls off historic upset”), uses Patrick’s victory, and others, to point out the obvious—Massachusetts is a blue state—and to develop a headline-friendly thesis following a familiar Politico checklist.

He finds an expert to tell us the obvious (one who even uses the word “obviously”):

“Obviously, the results show that Massachusetts is, at its core, a Democratic state,” said former Rep. Martin Meehan, now the chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. “It has been a reliable Democratic state for many years, particularly when it comes to the congressional delegation.”

He then gives us the national picture for some context:

But even before the election, Brown was an obvious Democratic target for 2012. He’s one of just 10 Republicans up for reelection next cycle — compared with 23 Democrats — and the only first-termer running in a blue state.

He’s an even more inviting opponent now, as Massachusetts Democrats once demoralized by the January special election celebrate Patrick’s win — and look to the campaign against Brown as the next rallying point.

Their hope, bolstered by the midterm results, is that Brown’s election was a fluke, made possible by a unique confluence of events unlikely to return on Election Day in 2012.

And then furnishes the piece with a colorful metaphor-filled quote from an expert:

Tim Vercellotti, director of polling at Western New England College, underscored that point: “Before last week, we could have thought of the January election as sort of an earthquake in Massachusetts. Now it seems more like just a slight bump in the road.”

Vercellotti provided Politico with a similarly colorful quote about Brown’s previous Democratic opponent back in 2009: “She’s really got to be careful. Here in Massachusetts, for anyone to have a Sarah Palin moment, that could be the kiss of death.”

None of this is particularly unsound reporting. The problem is that the big impediment to the entire premise is completely buried. Brown is actually very popular in the state, he’s already won convincingly in a blue state when nobody thought he could, and last week’s results may have little bearing on or relationship to the future race given fourteen months’ worth of variables. Or as Burns himself writes:

What Brown has going for him is this that he has consistently posted high favorability ratings, unlike Baker and other losing Republicans this year. He’s running as the incumbent, while Democrats will be fighting each other through a late, September primary. His trips this year as a campaign surrogate have taken him to essential fundraising destinations from Chicago to Burbank, and he had nearly $7 million stockpiled at the end of September.

“If you’re looking at this, if you’re the Brown folks, there’s nothing in these numbers that should really scare you, like there’s some shift in the electorate. The anti-Democrat, anti-Beacon Hill vote is still there,” argued one Republican involved in the state, noting that Brown “remains extremely popular. His biggest challenge is just the turnout you’re going to have in a presidential year.”

Trouble is that it doesn’t come until the twenty-third paragraph, long after Brown’s grim omens—not so different than those he’s already faced—have been laid out.

Had it come earlier, there might have been far less of a story here.

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.