“Pundits, Savants and Gurus,” Oh My!

The slow dissolution of conventional wisdom at CNN

Two minutes before the polls closed in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, CNN’s Jeff Toobin said to Anderson Cooper, “I’m wondering if this is the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?”

It’s now clear that it was, decidedly, the latter, making Toobin’s question one of the most prescient of the night. The big story, of course, was Hillary Clinton’s “comeback” victory over Barack Obama. At the end of the CNN’s four-hour election special, Lou Dobbs was so ecstatic (somewhat ironically) that the “pundits, savants, and gurus” had been wrong that he couldn’t stop the repeating the refrain.

How did CNN’s political team travel from Toobin’s early wonder to Dobbs’ later wow? Some events unfolded quickly; just minutes after the polls closed, Wolf Blitzer announced that CNN was predicting that John Edwards would place third among Democrats. After that, the network tracked the Obama-v.-Clinton race with the aid of some useful gadgetry.

John King was at the helm of the “telestrator,” which featured an interactive map of New Hampshire’s voting districts. King could zoom in for polling details in each district (colored coded by winning candidate), and make useful comparisons to the results of the 2004 presidential primary. Like John Madden scribbling out a pass route, King drew two large, green arcs-one around the liberal, western half of the state and the other around the moderate-to-conservative east. It was an effective way to illustrate what he called a “philosophical divide” between New Hampshire Democrats. Clinton made a strong showing in the large cities of the southeast early on, but King stayed focused on the western districts, which were slower to report and were expected to go to Obama. Ultimately, CNN was one of the last, if not the last, outlets to call the race for Clinton, and King’s holdout for the western polling stations, especially in places like Dartmouth College, seemed to explain a lot of the station’s hesitation.

Predicting the winner was much easier among the Republicans. At fifteen minutes past eight, the cable network announced that McCain would emerge victorious. As it would do with Clinton hours later, the press labeled McCain’s triumph a “huge comeback,” although, as with Clinton, the designation was not wholly deserved. McCain’s New Hampshire win was arguably expected, given his success there in 2000 and the amount of time and attention he devoted to campaigning there this time.

CNN’s Bill Schneider, who was handling exit poll analysis, said that according to those polls, “McCain did not win this election on the issues; he won it on personal qualities.” Unfortunately, for the rest of the evening further discussion of the future of the GOP ticket (especially Romney and Huckabee’s roles) took a back seat to the slowly evolving race on between Obama and Clinton. By nine o’clock, CNN’s team of seven political experts, guided by Anderson Cooper, was still debating whether Clinton’s team could capitalize on a second-place finish.

Uncertainty about the Democrats was still thriving after McCain’s victory speech, although the conventional wisdom that Obama would prevail with ease was beginning to fade. Gloria Borger reported that a stronger-than-expected turnout around Dartmouth College had the Clinton camp “nervous,” but a strong turnout among women supporting Clinton was also becoming apparent.

By ten o’clock, Wolf Blitzer was still reporting that punditry based on exit polls was inconclusive, and that the viewers would have to “wait and see,” the “old-fashioned way.” It was a surprising display of reverence for raw numbers over exit polls, but it proved to be short-lived. Ralph Reed, a Republican strategist, was soon talking about the “unexpected” strength of the Clinton vote, which touched off the evening’s second round of discussion about The Moment-when Clinton choked up while answering a question in a New Hampshire diner-and its importance. Reed demurred, as did analyst Donna Brazile, but Jack Cafferty struck back, saying that in all the years he’s covered her, Clinton had never seemed more “real.”

Other arguments were beginning to chip away at the remarkably unquestioned notion that Obama’s win was assured. Toobin observed that turnout, especially among women and voters who had made their decision about whom to vote for that day, was beginning to look stronger than expected. And Schneider introduced the idea that an economic recession might give Clinton a boost. His exit-poll analysis showed that voters who were “getting ahead” financially were voting Obama, while those that were “falling behind” were flocking to Clinton; he suggested that the latter group might be recalling the “good day” of the 1990s under Bill Clinton.

At half past ten, Blitzer was predicting a “long night,” and King was back at his telestrator explaining why the race was still too close to call. Then Blitzer interrupted him to announce that the Associated Press had called the race for Clinton. D’oh! King stood his ground, however, stating firmly that CNN was still not prepared to call it-those pesky college towns of Hanover, Durham, Keene, and Rindge still hadn’t weighed in. In fact, only Dartmouth College, in Hanover, was even in session, and so most students were still on holiday break. While it was refreshing to see a TV news outlet show restraint in announcing electoral results, the justification may have been unfounded.

CNN finally broke down and “predicted” that Clinton would win as Obama was making his way to the stage to concede. Clinton made her victory speech shortly thereafter; that’s when Dobb’s showed up, gleefully flabbergasted that the “pundits, savants and gurus” had been wrong. “It was supposed to be Barack Obama by as much as double-digits,” he crowed.

Whatever the reasons that the press was blindsided by Clinton’s win, it did not stifle the next round of punditry, which began immediately. Donna Brazile predicted that, “Black women will determine if Barack Obama gets the Democratic nomination.” And Wednesday morning, CNN’s early news team was already speculating about a Clinton-McCain face-off in the general election. In that respect, the New Hampshire primaries were a reminder that, even though an underdog victory makes for an exciting story, the press breeds its own astonishment. Consider the following exchange between Cooper and Dobbs. It was, in essence, the kicker to CNN’s four-hour report:

Dobbs: I don’t know about you, but I was absolutely thrilled to see all of the experts absolutely wrong - get kicked in the teeth.

Cooper: It seems like every election we are taught that lesson and then forget that lesson, the next election around, that you can’t predict anything.

Dobbs: Well, we’re television newsmen; we’re not supposed to be that smart.

Touché, Lou. Touché.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.