Tasty Potomac Predictions

The press feasts on the future

For those of you who prefer your primaries packed with jumbo lump crab meat, sealed with a golden pan-fry, and finished with a squirt of remoulade, your day has come. Old Bay, meet Have Your Say: the Crab Cake Primary is upon us.

It’s an appropriately tasty one, too, as primaries go—one that “could be a turning point” for the Democrats and Republicans alike. (Momentum! Momentum! Momentum!) But as residents of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia cast their votes today, they’ll do so under the vague but insistent shadow of inevitability cast by an insistently forward-focused press corps:

McClatchy: McCain, Obama favored to win Virginia

Agence France-Presse: Ragged Clinton campaign braces for more vote woe

UPI: Poll: Obama, McCain favored in Va., Md.

LA Times: Obama favored in Potomac primaries

Miami Herald: McCain, Obama look strong for ‘Potomac Primary’

Pittsburgh Tribune: Obama favored to sweep next 3 primaries

Wall Street Journal: Today, Sen. Obama is favored to win the “Potomac Primary” in neighboring Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

The Hill: Potomac primary losses could spark pressure on Huckabee to withdraw

ABC News’s The Note: Clinton’s gone cold at the wrong time, and she could wake up Wednesday staring at Obama from the other side of the standings.

New York Times: With primaries on Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, Clinton advisers were pessimistic about her chances, though some held out hope for a surprise performance in Virginia.

The “some” in the Times’s assessment is unspecified; you can’t help but think it refers to the press itself, who would like nothing more than A Surprise Upset to add some drama to the primary’s coverage. (Victory, when it’s expected, is soooo dull.) And, in the meantime, why get mired in the pesky present when you can focus on the future? That the Potomac Primary voters hadn’t yet started voting when these lines were written makes, apparently, little difference. We in the press have polling data, after all. We have anecdotal evidence. We have our own gut instincts. (None of those have steered us wrong in the past, right?) So let the punditing begin: as The Fix’s Chris Cillizza so gleefully put it, it’s “Potomac Primary Prediction Time!”

And the outlets heeded the call. Here’s the Baltimore Sun:

An Obama sweep in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which polls show is likely, could be one of the major turning points in the ‘08 campaign.

And CBS News:

Unhealed wounds remain among conservative voters in Virginia and across the nation….With the national GOP paying scant attention to Democrat-rich Washington and Maryland, Virginia stands out as the first bellwether as to whether McCain can heal those wounds, political and religious observers say.

And, not to be outdone, The Washington Post:

Victories in Maryland, Virginia and the District would give Barack Obama a narrow but undisputed lead among pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Together with the rest of his recent string of victories, such a sweep would bestow unmistakable momentum heading toward next week’s primary in Wisconsin and caucus in Hawaii.

This last one comes courtesy of a long WaPo analysis, “8 Questions the Potomac Primary Could Answer.” It’s a thoughtful piece, and one whose highlight-the-questions format is appropriate for the waiting-for-the-cakes-to-cool limbo we’ll be stuck in until precinct results start rolling in this evening. Generally good stuff, Crab Cake Tuesday-wise. Meaty. Light. Tasty. Except for one thing: the piece uses the conditional tense—generally eschewed in favor of its common past/present/future counterparts—a little too liberally. The word “would,” by my count, gets used thirteen times in “8 Questions”; the word “could,” three (four if you count the headline). In other words, “8 Questions” adds the spice—the ‘would,’ the ‘could’—before including, or even knowing, the substance it’s supposed to be complementing. (You don’t have to be Batali to know that, when cooking, you start with the basics—the meat, the starch—and then add seasoning. Reporting, in this case, is no different.)

When it comes to the primaries, this kind of forward-looking coverage tries to have its (crab) cake, and eat it too: it’s giving us the Analysis of What Happened before things have actually, you know, happened. In the process, it seems to forget about the people who are going to the polls today to make their voices heard—and who, as they’ve proved again and again, don’t appreciate being treated as foregone conclusions. The voters aren’t just eating what the press serves up, after all; they’re also the ones doing the cooking.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.