Toobin Got It Right

But rest of TV news perpetuated a fiction in the service of suspense

As we all waited for those final results to come in from northwest Indiana last night, everyone on TV seemed to collude in deceiving viewers—by propagating the fiction that the question of which candidate got more votes in Indiana was of any direct importance.

I was watching with my Mom, who’s visiting from overseas. From the breathless way that Russert, Matthews, Blitzer, Cooper, et al stoked the suspense over who would come out ahead in Indiana, she assumed, understandably, that the contest was winner-take-all, and therefore that whomever got the most votes would get all the states’ delegates.

That’s not how it works, of course. In the Democratic nomination contest (unlike the Republican one), delegates are awarded on a proportional basis. The difference between a two-point win for Clinton and a one-point win for Obama is at most, one delegate.

But as far as I saw, CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin was the only person to point that out all night, and no one seemed to pay him any attention.

This media fixation on who “won” each state seems to have its roots in the focus during the last few November general elections on the Electoral College, which is, of course, winner-take-all. But the main reason it has caught on for the primaries—despite the fact that it utterly misinforms viewers about how the race works—is that it allows CNN, MSNBC, and the rest to create a fresh sense of suspense and excitement each time out. It offers the media a way around the inconvenient reality that the nominating contest is set up in a way that’s not made for TV—a long, gradual fight for delegates, with no universally recognized finish line.

But the media’s insistence on pretending that each state is winner-take-all doesn’t just misinform viewers; it has adverse consequences on the race. Had Obama beaten Clinton in Indiana by a few thousand votes instead of vice versa, the calls for Clinton to get out of the race might have proved too strong for her to resist. As it is, she’ll likely go on. But however you feel about that, the idea that those few thousand votes should make the difference in her decision is absurd on its face. After all, for a time last night, it was unclear whether Obama would win North Carolina by fourteen or sixteen points—which translates to about the same number of votes we were waiting on last night in Indiana—but no one was arguing that anything important depended on it.

Of course, in a sense, the media are right that it matters who wins each state, because it affects how the race gets covered in the aftermath. So it makes sense for those of us interested in the outcome to worry about it too. But we should be aware that we’re only doing it this way because the talking heads have decided it’s good for business—it’s not actually how the primaries work. Is it too much to ask that the news media make that clear?

UPDATE: A reader notes “Chuck Todd on MSNBC did the same thing last night, so in fairness should get some credit for it. At one point he said - and I’m paraphrasing - ‘The results in Indiana are coming down to the difference of just ONE delegate.’ And again nobody on-air really seemed to care. It seems like he and Toobin were on the same page.”

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.