The Media Today

America’s permanent election strikes again

November 13, 2023
President Joe Biden speaks about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law at the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus in Washington, Friday, Jan. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“Democrats did well in today’s elections, but if the narrative is that they did badly, that could be a problem for Biden.” “A big night for Democrats Tuesday in state races only highlighted the struggles Joe Biden faces in 2024.” “Tuesday was great for Democrats. It doesn’t change the outlook for 2024.” “Even if Joe Biden has a great night on November 5, 2024, and wins 40 states, it still won’t change the outlook for 2024.” “Joe Biden is in trouble.” “Are we looking at George H.W. Biden?” “By bowing out of the 2024 race, the president could go from George H. W. Biden to Calvin Biden.” “Has winning elections become cheugy?” 

Last week, half of the above headlines (or takes) were posted by major mainstream news organizations. The other half were dreamed up by the New York Times Pitchbot, a parody account on X (formerly Twitter) that brutally satirizes headlines in major mainstream news organizations (and not only in the Times, as the account’s name suggests). While some of the fakes are more obvious than others (no one says “cheugy” anymore), they riffed on a very real phenomenon in the wake of off-year elections last Tuesday, with topline coverage and analysis often juxtaposing victories for Democrats and associated causes—in state legislative elections in Virginia, a gubernatorial election in Kentucky, a ballot initiative protecting access to abortion in Ohio—with President Biden’s low approval ratings and recent struggles in various polls of the 2024 presidential race. The juxtaposition teed up a debate in political media: Is Biden out of touch with Democratic voters, or is it the polls that are wrong? Camps quickly formed. The Times columnist David Brooks wrote (channeling the progressive strategist Michael Podhorzer) that “Americans increasingly use polls to vent, not to vote.” Nate Cohn—the same paper’s polling maven and author of one of the (real) articles referenced above—and others made the case that Biden’s poor polling isn’t so hard to reconcile with Democratic successes in votes that did not feature Biden on the ballot and were marked by lower turnout than a presidential race.

While Democrats and friendly pundits might mock the case put forward by the latter camp, I won’t take sides in this debate; for all I know, Cohn et al. might well be right. What’s more worthy of mockery—or, at least, eye-rolling exhaustion—is the instinct among reporters and pundits to immediately tie last week’s results to Biden’s political fortunes as their topline takeaway, irrespective of how they see the link. As I see it, this framing—which was prominent in political media last week, if not universal (as always with media criticism, it’s hard to generalize)—indulged three pathologies of political coverage that I’ve written about before in this newsletter. It overinflated the importance of polling and the horse race a year out from the next presidential election. It overly nationalized disparate races, flattening local nuances. And it muddied the seismic impact that the end of Roe v. Wade has had on the electoral landscape.

To take these trends in reverse order, the last might sound absurd: Roe has been a huge story ever since the Supreme Court overturned the ruling last year (indeed, ever since Politico’s stunning reporting on a leak of the verdict weeks prior), including in an electoral sense. I don’t mean to say that the story has been undercovered. And yet, as I wrote ahead of the midterms last year, coverage of Roe’s electoral implications in the months after the ruling “often seemed to downplay just how restructuring a development the overturning of Roe was likely to be in American politics.” That changed as the midterms drew closer but, at least in my view, electoral analysis of the question has since grown fuzzier again, despite repeated clear evidence that it is a hugely mobilizing issue. Earlier this year, New York’s Rebecca Traister wrote an article headlined, simply, “Abortion Wins Elections.” Last week, Traister told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that she’d been “nervous” about the headline at the time. “Very rarely is there anything that is quite so unequivocal, and that headline really was a blunt-force headline. And you never know actually what’s going to happen in any given election,” Traister said. “But here we are.”

If the impact of the end of Roe emerged again last week as a clear national lesson—one that, in fairness, many major outlets did cover prominently in their post-election coverage, in among all the toplines about Biden—the elections, in other ways, also turned on local issues that were absent from much big-picture national coverage, even if their presence was sometimes paid lip service. Andy Beshear, the Democratic governor who won reelection in Kentucky, ran on them, a fact that the national coverage I saw explained more as a rebuke of Biden than any reflection on his positions and record. After Beshear won his first election, in 2019, I wrote that that result and others on the same day were not “all about Trump,” even as Trump and some pundits tried to make them so. Back then, some other pundits did note the local factors powering Beshear, including his name recognition (his dad, Steve, also served as governor) and the unpopularity of the Republican incumbent. This time around, Beshear was popular and was still his father’s son. And his victory was not “all about Biden,” even as some pundits tried to make it so.

None of this is to say that coverage of local races should not extrapolate national conclusions at all—again, the ongoing salience of Roe looks like proof of that, and as I wrote in 2019, local politics is increasingly nationalized. But it shouldn’t drown out local complexity. And it shouldn’t be organized around the all-consuming prism of the presidential horse race. Since Beshear won last week, no few stories have touted him as a rising star and possible prospect for the 2028 race; we saw a similar phenomenon but in reverse out of Virginia, as various stories interpreted Democratic gains as bad news for the prospect that Glenn Youngkin, the Republican governor, might make a late entry into the 2024 race (though numerous political journalists had long viewed that as unlikely). After Youngkin won the governorship, in 2021, I wrote that the coverage reflected the media’s obsession with what I called “America’s permanent election”—or the notion that electoral developments between the end lines of a given presidency are invariably overanalyzed for presidential significance. The next presidential vote is now two years closer. But it’s still a quarter of Biden’s term away. An awful lot can still change.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

This, of course, is not to say that the next presidential election doesn’t matter or that we should wait till the last minute to lay out the stakes—it’s to say, as the journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to put it, that coverage should actually be organized around the stakes, and not the latest odds in the horse race, as was the case with so much analysis of last week’s elections. We’ve seen some excellent coverage of the stakes recently, including last week: the Times, for instance, published a big story sketching Trump’s plans for an “extreme expansion” of his first-term immigration crackdown should he return to office; over the weekend, after Trump gave a Veterans Day speech in which he attacked his political foes as “vermin,” several articles stressed the fascist lineage of that term. But not everyone did so. (The Timesheadline about Trump’s remarks was the Pitchbot-worthy “Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in a Very Different Direction”; the headline has since been changed, but, at time of writing, was still lame.) And even good journalism on the stakes of the 2024 election for US democracy can still feel divorced from horse race coverage that takes the health of that democracy as an unspoken given.

Nor is the health of democracy solely a story about the next election—it’s a permanent concern, much more so than the latest presidential oddsmaking should be. Ahead of the abortion initiative in Ohio last week, Republican leaders used an official taxpayer-funded website to spread partisan and misleading talking points about it; after voters overwhelmingly backed enshrining abortion rights in the state constitution, several Republican state lawmakers suggested that they might try to remove judges’ power to interpret the result and instead arrogate it to themselves, to prevent what they called “mischief.” Various national outlets covered this, but not all of them did, and it’s hardly been a top story. After all, Biden is in trouble. Or not.

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, the website of the United Nations climate agency posted a document—issued by officials in the United Arab Emirates, who are hosting the upcoming COP28 climate summit in Dubai—warning reporters covering the conference not to publish stories that might “offend” the country’s rulers, among other restrictions. After E&E News asked about the restrictions, however, they were taken down, with a spokesperson for the organizers claiming that they had been posted in error. Various observers had already raised concerns about press freedom at the summit; Corbin Hiar has more details.
  • Last week, FBI agents dramatically seized electronic devices belonging to Eric Adams, the Democratic mayor of New York, in apparent connection with a probe into whether he pressured city fire officials to sign off on a Turkish diplomatic building, despite safety concerns. Over the weekend, the New York Post suggested, in an editorial, that the federal government is trying to embarrass Adams in retaliation for his criticisms of Biden. Per Semafor, the paper’s line on Adams isn’t going down well in the newsroom.
  • As Semafor also noted in its weekly media newsletter, national reporters will descend on San Francisco this week for a conference of leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, at which Biden is expected to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Ahead of time, Mission Local, a San Francisco news site, posted a story generator satirizing clichéd recent national-media reporting on the city’s “misery and exodus and ‘doom loops.’” 
  • And NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe talked about life with Will Shortz—the “puzzle master” who, among other things, writes a weekly quiz for Weekend Edition—at a table-tennis club that Shortz co-owns. “I feel like I’m a long-distance entertainer; I can turn anything into a game,” Shortz said. “In the eighth grade, when asked to write a paper about what I wanted to do with my life, I said, [become] a professional puzzle-maker.”

ICYMI: Is Threads winning the war with X?

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.