Mapmaker, mapmaker, make me a map…

A glut of "swing-state" stories risks inspiring false certainty about the coming election

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.

It is so easy for political reporters and armchair analysts to be beguiled by the seeming solidity of the 2008 electoral map. The swath of Obama blue covering traditionally GOP bastions like Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina seems so solid on a print page. But in a shrewd piece for Real Clear Politics this week, Sean Trende challenges glib assumptions about electoral geography based on the results of the past five presidential elections. As Trende points out, “the Republicans haven’t had a particularly good presidential playing field since 1988.” The reasons vary: a stagnant GOP economy in 1992 and 2008; strong economic growth under Democrats in 1996 and 2000; and the drag from the Iraq War in 2004. We easily forget that even though five presidential elections cover two decades, they are still just five data points.

I am not suggesting that major news outlets send political reporters off to Cheyenne and Syracuse under the naive belief that somehow Wyoming and New York will be in play in November. Political reporters are, of course, best positioned in states where the campaigns are sending the candidates and saturating the TV screens. (I spent good chunk of the fall of 2004 and 2008 on the ground in Columbus, Ohio, watching the candidates come to me.)

But if we are journalistically doomed to spend the next six months traipsing over the same patches of political geography, it would be laudable if campaign reporters could do more than simply metering muddled voters as they mull. There are innovative stories that can be written beyond the obvious Road to 270 strategic summaries. Over the life of the Obama administration, for example, have swing states received more federal funds per capita than similar states that are firmly Democratic or Republican? Are Obama appointees to the sub-Cabinet or White House staff more likely to hail from states that are up for grabs in 2012?

Campaign coverage should also convey how fluid electoral math can become over the next six months. The political map can shift sharply between elections, even those featuring incumbents, as it did between 1976 and 1980 and between 1988 and 1992. (As even the Times’s Nate Silver, at the end of a recent blog post that was predicated on the stability of the electoral map, wrote: “With all that said, there is a lot of uncertainty this far out from the election. The ordering of the states is usually fairly consistent from year to year, especially when there is an incumbent running for re-election, but they can be scrambled to some extent by local issues, long-term demographic trends or the amount of attention that the campaigns focus on them.”)

Who knows whether by October the Democrats will be targeting Missouri and Republicans will see hidden opportunity in New Jersey? At this point in 2008, it would have been laughable to suggest that Obama could carry Indiana or North Carolina. Yet he did. That is the biggest risk in media organizations trumpeting exclusive maps of tossup states in May—they inspire a level of false certainty about an election whose details are still unknowable.

Correction: This article initially stated that Barack Obama was the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of the popular vote. In fact, Jimmy Carter received just over 50 percent of the vote in 1976. CJR regrets the error.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.