Campaign journalism tends to revolve around a single question: Who’s winning? Since the beginning of the year, the answer has been obvious. Joe Biden has never trailed Donald Trump in national polls, and his advantage has been larger and steadier than any candidate since Bill Clinton. Biden has raised more money than Trump, has commissioned more advertising in more states, and his current path to 270 electoral votes appears robust enough to withstand the same degree of polling error that occurred in 2016.
Still, the surprising result of that race is leading the media to treat Biden’s position as precarious. Every major newsbreak has given rise to a rash of articles speculating about how events might affect the former Vice President’s lead. The wave of unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd led many to wonder if Trump’s race-baiting “law and order” message might help him regain an advantage with white voters in the Midwest, while the surge in coronavirus cases across the South this summer had others imagining a landslide victory for Biden—though public opinion about the candidates barely quivered in response to both. Earlier this month, the President’s coronavirus hospitalization spawned yet another round of breathless conjecture.
“Ifs,” “mights,” and “coulds” are the stock and trade of the punditry business. They allow for the imagination of a possible future even as they stop short of forecasting how likely that version of events is to occur. Covering hypotheticals in this way has become all too common this fall, with articles seeking to capture the dimension of everything that could possibly go wrong on November 3rd garnering far more attention than workaday dispatches from the quasi-virtual campaign trail. The New York Times offered seven “nightmare scenarios,” ranging from Chinese hacking to the processing of mail-in ballots dragging into mid-December, and the New Yorker published a feature report on how the legal wrangling that might stem from a close election could make declaring a winner impossible. What happens if the president loses but refuses to leave the White House? Would a federal judiciary stacked with Republican appointees be willing to subvert the public will? Has a foreign power already gained access to voting machines?
None of these questions are groundless, yet discussing them so fervently overshadows the less panic-inducing ways in which this election will unfold differently than others have in the past. There will be more ballots cast by mail than ever before, and for that reason alone it may indeed be impossible for TV journalists to declare a winner on November 3rd. But by conjuring images of an election night that doubles as an authoritarian coup, the media is priming the electorate to respond to any immediate uncertainty about the outcome of the presidential race with distrust rather than patience. The stage has been set for small hiccups in the mechanical counting of votes to be recast as symptomatic of wide-spread fraud, foreign meddling, or some as yet untold terror—exactly the kind of vague sense of distrust that Trump has turned to his advantage throughout his presidency.
Too many journalists are fostering a public impression that nothing is knowable except that the worst might occur. Such speculation can’t help but degenerate into a mess of equivocation and doubt, the sort that leaves its audience associating the election with anxiety or dread, obscuring the fact that individual voters are the only ones who actually have the power to determine how events will unfold.
THE POLITICAL PREDICTION BUSINESS takes two forms: gut-instinct analysis and the poll-driven models that have proliferated since the 2008 debut of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. Up until election day in 2016, it seemed that the data-savvy crew had firmly displaced the veteran political observer; in 2012, Peggy Noonan infamously predicted a Romney win based on the yard signs she had seen in Florida while Silver’s model accurately called the winner of all 50 states. Trump’s victory, however, left both the numbers-crunchers and the shoe-leather journalists scrambling for answers.
In response, both schools of electoral prognosticators have toned down the conviction of their forecasts, even as they refuse to stop attempting to anticipate the future. Nate Silver has tweaked his model to make it as cautious as possible, writing that in addition to factoring in polling trends and economic indicators, it now accounts for “the number of full-width New York Times headlines,” the thought being that “more news means more uncertainty.” That equation has drawn criticism from many of Silver’s analytics-minded counterparts, including the Times’ Nate Cohn, who noted that by Silver’s standard 2016 was a more newsworthy year than 1968, a notion he called “undefensible.”
For many traditionalists, no amount of twiddling with the data will make polls worth following. Outlets have seized on quotes like “I don’t trust polling” or “the polls are a mirage” from Democratic politicians and organizers to prop up stories that are largely speculative, like one the Guardian headlined, “US election polls look good for Joe Biden. But can they be trusted?”
Campaign journalists of all stripes have twisted themselves into an impossible position, attempting to forecast how the election will play out based on both hard numbers and anecdotal metrics of support even as they refrain from taking too bold a stand. The result is uncertainty that breeds uncertainty, making the whole election appear to be an event that could unfold in any which way one might be able to imagine.
A quote from a Harvard psychologist that the venerable Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall used to close his discussion of the Republican National Convention is telling of the general mood: “I think that Biden will probably win and will probably be the next president. But the fact that I can’t say more than ‘probably’ is terrifying to me. I fear that we are witnessing the end of American democracy.”
Seeking certainty about the future, though, is not just unreasonable, but impossible. Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, provides a useful reminder: “No one, in fact, knows anything about what’s to come.”
On one hand, Biden could be swept into the White House by a “blue tsunami” unseen since the days of FDR. On the other, these could be the last days of the republic. Between those extremes exist a plentitude of possible futures. By embracing a variety of disaster scenarios, the pundit class risks creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Again: this election will be different, and uncertainty remains about how it will play out. But if the expectation has been set that any questions about the counting of ballots opens the door to the end of America as we know it, then how much more likely is the President to shove that door wide enough to step through if it takes a few extra days to declare a winner?
Too many journalists learned the wrong lesson from the 2016 election: rather than accept that a somewhat unlikely event can indeed occasionally happen, they now seem to believe that anything is possible at any time. Normal levels of uncertainty have been conflated with a sense of an onrushing cataclysm. It’s time to take a step back and a deep breath. With votes already being cast and election day only a few weeks off, what matters now is to cover the facts on the ground. To describe the world as it is. Yes, things are changing, as they always do. But journalists are not soothsayers or clairvoyants. Yard signs and election models are not the same as crystal balls, they are simply different ways of describing the present. Today, right now, Biden is winning the election; observing that reality is a far cry from predicting he will win. Let’s see what happens next.