Objects In Rear View Mirror May Appear Larger Than They Are

As we’ve noted here, the conventional wisdom among pontificators, pundits and pollsters has been to focus on the swing states - the states that generated a close vote in 2000 and are also regarded as key to deciding the winner this year - and ignore the rest.

But what if that strategy is wrong?

Two national pollsters argue it is, writing for today’s Washington Post op-ed page that “the country’s political reporters and pundits [are] gazing intently in the rear-view mirror.” “Covering the last election, like fighting the last war, vastly increases the chances we’ll miss what really matters in this one,” say Richard Morin, director of polling at the Post and Gary Langer, head of polling for ABC News. Citing results of the latest Post-ABC News poll, Moran and Langer say that George Bush’s narrow lead over John Kerry is the result of movement “outside the anointed battlegrounds, suggesting that other states may now be in play.” History offers plenty of lessons. “Of the 18 states decided by a margin of 6 percentage points or fewer in 2000, only six were close in 1996,” write the pollsters. “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.”

Battleground journalism also does a disservice to the residents of the 33 unanointed states, home to two-thirds of voting-age Americans. For them, the campaign becomes merely the roar of distant thunder. “Sit down, shut up, and watch Ohio pick the president,” we’re telling them in effect.

Setting aside for the moment the unthinkable prospect that Messrs. Moran and Langer simply want to generate more business for themselves - more uncertain voters, more polls - the point they raise is a valid one. And it says as much about the media as it does the political strategists they write about. Good campaign coverage is more than just regurgitating the latest polling data and handicapping the candidates based on same. Focusing attention on what were the 16, or 18, or 20 “swing” states four years ago, at the expense of the rest of the country, is equally lazy. And while it may simplify the lives of political editors and reporters to do so, they should resist - lest they simplify themselves and their readers right out of the real story.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.