Tuesday’s “Shocking,” “Surprising,” “Stunning” Primary Results

The night that defied and confirmed the media’s expectations

Read the paper today? If you did, you’ll see yesterday’s primary results were a victory for incumbents, anti-incumbents, the establishment, political insurgents, the well funded, and penny-pinchers.

Confused? Join the caucus.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the key results before we look at how the papers are handling all this voter-inflicted narrative-rewriting chaos.

Palin-backed Joe Miller looks set to beat incumbent senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaskan Republican senate primary with postal votes still being counted, much to many a pollster’s chagrin. Polls also failed to foretell cashed-up outsider Rick Scott besting insider attorney general Bill McCollum to the Republican nomination for Florida governor. The anti-incumbency narrative lives on.

But before you get carried away… Also in Florida, congressman Kendrick Meek defeated super-rich real estate mogul Jeff Greene in the Democratic senate primary. And, in scorched-earth country, super-duper incumbent John McCain trounced insider-outsider J.D. Hayworth in the Republican senate primary. Viva Incumbency!

Chris Cillizza has a nice summary of the surprises and non-surprises on The Fix today.

Conclusion one: Different states vote different ways for different reasons. Conclusion two: Trumped up media narratives don’t always explain how people vote. Conclusion three: Maybe it’s best to just leave the narratives alone and let the results write the story.

Or, maybe it’s best to take a long hard look at ourselves and the results and wonder what this all means to the narratives we’ve created, and how it might be tweaked so that everything still neatly fits. This is the approach of most of the major outlets today.

In a fairly muted but highly informed view of the Alaskan and other results, the Times’s Damien Cave invokes the anti-incumbency meme before propagating a new one.

Ms. Murkowski has been in the Senate since 2002, when her father appointed her to the seat he had held since 1981 so that he could become governor. She is battling for re-election in a political season in which another Senate incumbent, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, lost a primary after switching party affiliation to Republican from Democrat, setting off fears that a tide of anti-incumbency would spell doom for sitting lawmakers.

The Alaska results contrasted with other races around the nation Tuesday in which established politicians managed to easily prevail. In Arizona, Senator John McCain handily dispatched his Republican challenger, J. D. Hayworth, and Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, was also victorious, as was Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

Over at Politico, Alexander Burns plays up the shock and awe of the primary results, calling out pollsters and insiders—anyone but journalists, really—for being surprised by the counts.

On a night that was supposed to favor political insiders from coast to coast, and even as another self-funding Floridian – real estate billionaire Jeff Greene – crashed and burned in the state’s Democratic Senate primary, Scott’s victory stood out as a triumph of scorched-earth campaign tactics and relentless outsider messaging.

…Scott’s victory is also a surprise to several leading pollsters: the firm Mason-Dixon showed McCollum with a nine-point lead in the final stretch of the race, while Quinnipiac University gave him a narrower advantage. Only the relatively new, Democratic-aligned firm Public Policy polling showed Scott ahead.

…If Scott’s victory was shocking, it was also the exception that proved the rule on an otherwise strong night for veteran pols. Greene lost the Democratic Senate nomination to Rep. Kendrick Meek by an overwhelming margin, trailing by 25 percentage points after outspending Meek by tens of millions of dollars.

The narrative—that the night was “supposed to favor political insiders”—stands, according to Burns. Florida Republicans didn’t change the story; no, they delivered a verdict that was an exception to the “rule.” The rule created by Politico and others. (And a new rule at that—remember anti-insurgency? It seems like only yesterday….)

It’s unfortunate that Burns wrote his piece before the Alaska count. There, as he writes, “Sen. Lisa Murkowski was expected to dispatch attorney Joe Miller.” That’s the Murkowski who “even after election after election this year has dispatched experienced legislators to other forms of employment… fully embraced her status as a politician capable of delivering federal support for her remote, sparsely populated state…” I guess her likely loss is another “exception” to whatever rule it is we’re following now.

At the Post, Dan Balz does a bit of backtracking on his Monday story, “Establishment candidates in Arizona, Florida rally against ‘outsider’ rivals.” In that story, Balz tapped out some (then) conventional wisdom:

In that state’s Republican gubernatorial primary, another wealthy businessman, Rick Scott, poured tens of millions of his money into his race against state Attorney General Bill McCollum. But after leading in the polls, Scott trails his rival.

The contests offer more evidence that establishment candidates can prosper in this year of the outsider. They are also a reminder that personal wealth cannot overcome personal flaws, particularly among political novices.

Today came Balz’s more cautious rewrite, “Primaries test establishment vs. outsiders in Florida, Arizona and Alaska.”

In Florida, voters delivered a mixed verdict on the outsider versus establishment question. In the Democratic Senate primary, Rep. Kendrick Meek easily defeated billionaire businessman and political novice Jeff Greene.

…In a year described alternately as anti-incumbent and anti-Washington, political outsiders have triumphed in many places, capturing GOP primaries in Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, Colorado and Connecticut, among others. “Tea party” activists played a crucial role in many of those states.

Overall, Balz’s piece is formidable, one of the best-informed and most thorough takes on the results. But what’s most “surprisingly” “shockingly” interesting about the story is the internal struggle it seems to be having over just how to call Tuesday’s results. One for the incumbents, or one for the antis? At times it reads as if Balz is having a conversation with himself, mulling over some invisible pros-and-cons list:

But some embattled incumbents have survived unexpectedly strong challenges, as was the case two weeks ago in Colorado, where appointed Sen. Michael Bennet beat back a challenge from former state House speaker Andrew Romanoff. McCain’s easy victory and Meek’s comeback in Florida continued that pattern Tuesday.

Still, there is little to suggest that voter disaffection with Washington is dissipating or that Republican energy and enthusiasm are weakening. With President Obama in the White House and Democrats holding both the House and Senate, Democratic incumbents are expected to feel the brunt of that anger.

McClatchy’s comprehensive take is in tune with the rest, though the writers certainly push down hard on the “big drama” pedal.

…Scott’s victory is a shock to the state’s political system, and threatens to tear apart the fabric of the Republican Party already reeling from the indictment of former party chairman Jim Greer and defection of a once-immensely popular governor, Charlie Crist.

But for my money the best piece on the primaries story goes to Jay Newton Small at Time’s Swampland blog. It’s all in the lede.

Tuesday night’s primaries reminded us that nothing this election season is as we expect it.

If yesterday’s ungainly and untamable results reveal anything on a broader national scale, it might just be this: beware of narratives—they’re often just fiction.

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

Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.