For a newspaper that believes that a decent fraction of its readers know that Kurt Weill wrote the music for The Threepenny Opera (51 Down in Wednesday’s Crossword), The New York Times curiously assumes complete amnesia when it comes to presidential campaigns. The hanging-chad long count in Florida that decided the 2000 election—down the memory hole. The 60,000-vote shift in Ohio in 2004 that would have made John Kerry president—forgotten.
A front-page article by Michael Cooper in Sunday’s paper was built around this revelation: “An analysis of the emerging electoral map by The New York Times found that the outcome would most likely be determined by how well President Obama and Mitt Romney performed in nine tossup states.” What a stunner for all Times readers who flunked out of the Electoral College in their attempt to master American politics. They must be gape-jawed to learn that while all American voters are equal, those in swing states like Florida and Ohio (both high up on the Times tossup list) are more equal than others.
The primaries are over and the Romney veepstakes are stalled: How often can you write that Rob Portman is solid, boring, and—get me rewrite—comes from Ohio? As an inevitable result, May is Map Month on the political beat. Everyone is out with their proprietary guides to swing states, with Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, and New Hampshire highlighted as ground zero for uncertainty on virtually every list. There are so many exclusive lists of battleground states that Charles Mahtesian, Politico’s national politics editor, felt compelled to differentiate between “hard” and “soft” swing states.
The message embedded in most of these articles is a daunting one for Republicans. “Math Challenge for Romney” was the headline in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. Dan Balz and Philip Rucker, writing in last week’s Washington Post, codify the conventional wisdom: “Mitt Romney faces a narrow path to the presidency, one that requires winning back states that President Obama took from the Republicans in 2008 and that has few apparent opportunities for Romney to steal away traditionally Democratic states.”
Much of this is simple arithmetic, since Obama in 2008 was the first Democrat since
Lyndon Johnson Jimmy Carter to corral a majority of the popular vote and romped home with a better than two-to-one margin in the Electoral College.* Of course, Romney has to win states that Obama carried, because otherwise—brace yourself—he loses just like John McCain.
Banal and predictable as they are, these map-making exercises are generally harmless and occasionally useful (the Times article offers intriguing demographic nuggets about the tossup states and nifty online graphics). They even have a glimmer of a news peg by explaining for the rare puzzled reader from Sri Lanka why Obama kicked off his campaign with swing-state rallies in Ohio and Virginia.
Many of these stories, though, also illustrate how campaign reporters remain shackled by dubious conventions of objectivity that require them to obtain quotes from political scientists to state the obvious. The Times article ends by invoking a Princeton professor, Christopher H. Achen, to point out that a healthy economy benefits Obama, while “a disruption—caused, say, by a downturn in Europe—would most likely help Mr. Romney.” The Wall Street Journal story by Neil King Jr. and Laura Meckler concludes with University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato revealing that “much will hinge on the state of the economy in the fall.”
About all that was missing was an eminent university professor sagely observing that the candidate who wins the most votes in the Electoral College will be the next president.
Brendan Nyhan, writing for CJR’s own Swing State Project last month, has already pointed out the folly of placing too much weight on premature polling in supposed toss-up states. That, of course, did not prevent USA Today from recently ballyhooing a 12-state poll with the online headline, “Six months out, a close race in swing states.” Underscoring the lack of precision in these too-much-too-soon geographical designations, USA Today (unlike the Times) considers North Carolina, New Mexico, and Michigan to be electoral battlegrounds.