Press to Cliché: We Just Can’t Quit You

Media acknowledges narrative's limits; advances it anyway

On Tuesday, November 3, voters around the country will go to the polls to elect officials in a variety of races. These campaigns, known as the “off-year elections” because of the absence of regularly scheduled federal contests, are mostly obscure. But a few of them—the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and (especially) Virginia, and the House race in New York’s Twenty-third Congressional District—have been endowed with broader significance; the outcomes there will be analyzed and interpreted as symbols of the national political mood and tests of “the Obama agenda.” For reasons John Sides lays out briefly here, these analyses will be mostly meaningless. The sample is too small, the factors that drive election outcomes are too complex, local conditions are too variable, and our knowledge about voters’ motivations is too limited to draw any real conclusions.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the political press is eager to assign meaning here where none may be warranted. But what’s aggravating about this situation is that reporters will frequently acknowledge the limitations of what these off-year elections tell us about national politics—and then happily speculate about their meaning nonetheless.

A case in point is Adam Nagourney’s Oct. 12 story for The New York Times, headlined “Two State Races May Put Lens on Obama.” Nagourney wrote:

Off-year elections are prone to overinterpretation, and governor’s races tend to be determined by the quality of the candidates and local issues rather than national politics; overcrowded highways are the biggest topic this year in Virginia.

But that was immediately followed by the story’s central claim:

For all that, Virginia, a laboratory for many of the ways Mr. Obama tried to change the ideological appeal and tactics of his party, is looming as an early if imprecise test of this president and his policies.

Nagourney returns to the same terrain today, with a news analysis headlined “Outcomes of Off-Year Races May Provide Insight” (“may” being one of several useful hedge words here). One of the opening paragraphs reads:

Off-year elections are typically the subject of frenzied discussion and overinterpretation by political observers — though rarely, it seems, as frenzied this year, a reflection of the heightened interest in politics created by Mr. Obama’s rise.

But soon enough, we see some of that overinterpretation first-hand:

At the very least, the results in the governors’ races, if not predictive, are quite likely to drive the political narrative, bolstering or diminishing Mr. Obama’s political stature as he seeks to rally a divided party. The outcome could, to a limited degree, help measure whether Mr. Obama’s success last year was a phenomenon limited to him or the early signs of a long-term Democratic resurgence.

Other examples are plentiful. According to the Associated Press, “the outcomes [of tomorrow’s races] won’t predict next year’s midterm results.” But that didn’t stop the AP from running a long story predicated on the idea that “the McDonnell-Deeds outcome [in Virginia] will be a key measure of how America feels and, perhaps more importantly, how independent voters are acting ahead of the 2010 elections.” And the pattern isn’t limited to American journalists. The Times of London recently ran a story that included the sentence, “The impression of an Obama brand poisoned by the politics of the past nine months is probably false, however.” But that acknowledgement didn’t stop the paper from headlining the piece, “Obama set to lose first election test in Virginia’s governor race.”

One of the most interesting cases of this phenomenon is Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, who has helpfully anticipated all the post-election spin, offered warnings about the limits of analysis, and even asked: “[I]s it possible that the political community will over-interpret the consequences? Most certainly.” But even as he is warning about the perils of overinterpretation, Ambinder seems unable to resist it. Today, he tweeted that a special election for a vacant state Senate seat in Michigan—which sounds like the very definition of a low-turnout, low-profile race that will turn on candidate quality, campaign quality, and local issues—is a bellwether to watch.

So why do reporters keep reaching to assign significance to these races, even as they acknowledge it may not be there? Any answer to that question is itself speculative, but here’s one idea: it just makes politics more fun. Much as sports fans create extra meaning for games by seeing every choke or victory in moral terms, political journalists make elections more meaningful by threading them into a broader narrative. (This process is facilitated by political consulting companies who have an interest in hyping minor races, as seems to have occurred with the Michigan state Senate race.) The political junkies who read these stories, of course, have all the same incentives to divine broader meaning. But when journalists warn about over-analysis of these races, they’re right—even if they go on to do the overanalyzing themselves.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.