Objects in Rear View Mirror May Appear Larger Than They Are

Countless news cycles ago, back in May, Campaign Desk chronicled a narrative then emerging in the campaign press warning that this election may not turn out to be a replay of 2000.

The Hotline’s Chuck Todd kicked off the storyline with a piece in the May Washington Monthly in which he wrote, “Elections that feature a sitting president tend to be referendums on the incumbent — and in recent elections, the incumbent has either won or lost by large electoral margins.” A gang of campaign journalists, including John Harwood and Andrew Sullivan, signed on to this fresh way of thinking. Most notably, Richard Morin and Gary Langer, the Washington Post and ABC News polling directors, respectively, argued in the Washington Post that battleground states fluctuate from year to year, in that “exactly none of this year’s battleground states were consistently close in each of the past four presidential elections.” Thus, they concluded, “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.”

While it had its moment in the spotlight, this narrative quickly faded, to be replaced again by the original conventional wisdom that this race would be 2000 redux. Most recently this conventional wisdom has manifest itself in articles predicting that Americans will wake on November 3, 2004 the same way they woke up after election day 2000 — not knowing which candidate has won the presidential election.

As Todd and Morin and Langer did earlier this summer, this weekend the Associated Press’ Ron Fournier offered up a much welcomed corrective to the cast-in-stone conventional wisdom that all eyes will be nervously awaiting the outcomes in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania on election night. Fournier writes:

What happens if it’s not such a close race? Assume for a moment that this volatile campaign takes one more modest swing before Election Day — a gentle nudge of the pendulum — and [either] Bush or Kerry break away by 3 or 4 percentage points.

That’s the margin of error for most polls, but enough to tilt every tossup state to a single candidate.

Bush’s 222 electoral votes become 331, an electoral landslide.

Kerry’s 207 becomes 316, not shabby.

A replay of 2000 would be an electoral anomaly. As David Brooks reminded us Saturday, “Remember, it is very unusual to have two close presidential elections in a row. This hasn’t occurred for about 120 years.”

Sure, as Fournier points out, all current polling does indicate a close race. But there are eight days to go, and given the tendency of undecideds to be influenced by developments in the final days, however minor, it’s entirely possible that the race could break to either candidate late in the game and result in an early evening on election night.

On Friday USA Today’s political editor Lee Horwich told Campaign Desk that it’s important “to be prepared for outcomes that we might not have been ready to acknowledge in 2000.”

Reporters who don’t keep that in mind could unwittingly distort their coverage in the final days of the campaign.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.