Fighting the Last War

By Thomas Lang

The 2000 election hangover lives on.

Coverage of the 2004 election is already being shaped by the apparent lessons of the 2000 contest: The election will be close, one state can make all the difference. The problem is that such thinking may well be wrong — and the error of “fighting the last war” has the potential to greatly distort the news coverage of the current election.

When the dust finally settled from Bush v. Gore and the media began to take a look at the then-distant 2004 contest, the events of the recent past understandably clouded their judgment. In April 2001 CNN’s Judy Woodruff reported, “The Democrats, of course, will get another shot in 2004, whoever their candidate is, and once again Florida is shaping up as the battleground to watch.” That same month the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the subject written by Ron Brownstein with the headline, “2004 Already Shaping Up as a Rerun of Florida Feud.”

Forty-two months and an infinity of news cycles removed from Bush v. Gore, the emphasis on Florida as the “pivotal” battleground state has dissipated (replaced by Ohio as the battleground state of choice), but the search for those states that could swing the election lives on. As Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei wrote in the March 15, 2004 Washington Post, “The election-night mapmakers created an indelible image of political America in 2000: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats, and a handful of states, crowned by disputed Florida, that remained competitive until the very end. Campaign 2004 begins where 2000 left off.”

Recently, a steady flow of articles has questioned the conventional wisdom born in the wake of the 2000 election. These pieces offer a corrective to the campaign coverage so far this season. In differing ways the correctives look at electoral history prior to 2000 and ask: Is it wise to think 2004 will be a replay of 2000?

This counter-intuitive flood started with Hotline editor Chuck Todd’s piece in the May issue of the Washington Monthly. Todd argues that, contrary to the belief that the election will be as close as 2000, one candidate could actually win in a blowout. “Elections that feature a sitting president tend to be referendums on the incumbent,” Todd writes, “and in recent elections, the incumbent has either won or lost by large electoral margins.”

Todd continues, “In the last 25 years, there have been four elections which pitted an incumbent against a challenger — 1980, 1984, 1992, and 1996. In all four, the victor won by a substantial margin in the electoral college.” Todd concludes, “The least likely result this November is another close election.”

Todd’s argument quickly emerged as the new conventional wisdom. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal’s John Harwood jumped on the corrective bandwagon, debunking the claim that 2004 will be a “close contest.” (Subscription required for link.) Harwood writes:

[T]he deeper America gets into this perplexing political year, the more campaign operatives are bracing for something different: a race that breaks decisively one way or the other. Eyeing different historic parallels, Democrats and Republicans envision competing models for a November rout that turns on the electorate’s judgment of the White House incumbent.

Harwood, like Todd, points out that before the 2000 election “a generation had passed since a presidential loser came within 200 electoral votes of the winner.” Harwood acknowledges the increasingly polarized electorate but ultimately concludes, “Whether voters ultimately signal thumbs up or thumbs down for Mr. Bush, that may be the model to remember.”

The Todd/Harwood argument found support in the blogosphere. Linking to the Todd article, Andrew Sullivan wrote, “My instinct is that this election will not, in fact, be close. Either Bush will convince people that he is winning the war on terror and turning the economy around and win handsomely, or he won’t, and Kerry will win big.”

The new conventional wisdom quickly found its way into campaign news stories. In today’s New York Times Elisabeth Rosenthal contextualizes Bush’s falling numbers by citing Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush’s low approval ratings in 1980 and 1992, respectively. She then warns, “Both incumbents lost by large numbers.”

Yet sandwiched between the Todd and Harwood pieces came a different theory from Richard Morin and Gary Langer. The Washington Post and ABC News polling directors, respectively, argued, like Todd and Harwood, that it is foolish to assume that this election will be a replay of the 2004 election. “[H]istory suggests another outcome: that this election’s real battleground states will be different from those of 2000,” they wrote. “And what’s virtually certain is this: Covering the last election, like fighting the last war, vastly increases the chances we’ll miss what really matters in this one.”

Morin and Langer argue that “real battlegrounds” vary from election to election:

Of the 18 states decided by a margin of 6 percentage points or fewer in 2000, only six were close in 1996. Only eight were similarly competitive in 1992. And exactly none of this year’s battleground states were consistently close in each of the past four presidential elections.

On the flip side, 11 states that featured tight races in 1996 vanished from the list in 2000. Similarly, there were 22 close states in 1992, but eight slid off four years later and three were added.

Morin and Langer expose a dirty secret of political journalism — the future is unpredictable. (Need we remind everyone of the endless string of articles touting Howard Dean’s inevitable march to the Democratic nomination?)

While Todd and Harwood’s pieces acted as correctives, sparking an overdue re-evaluation of the conventional wisdom that contests in 16 or 17 states would produce an election as close as the 2000 election, both continue to use the results of past elections to frame the debate.

Morin and Langer, however, challenge the conventional wisdom in an alternative way to conclude that political junkies have no way of extrapolating statistics from the past. For them, the future is uncertain.

Predicting the outcome of the race is the job of the campaigns, not journalists. As Morin and Langer conclude, “News organizations and the campaigns have different aims. Theirs is to win the election. Ours is to cover it, fully and well, in the real battleground: the United States of America.”

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

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.