Dean Defeats Truman!

I started this post this morning and got sidetracked by news of my sudden unemployment: Howie Kurtz examines why the political pundits have been so wrong, so often this campaign cycle.

It’s time for political reporters to swear off some long-standing habits.

For decades, they have built their campaign narratives around four bedrock pillars: money, organization, polls and endorsements. But much of that has crumbled in the shifting sands of the 2004 race, most recently when John Edwards surged to a surprising second-place finish in the Wisconsin primary.

The missteps were magnified by a prediction-obsessed culture in which many pundits and journalists were all but writing off candidates as the voting began and constantly trying to push the narrative to the next phase and get on with the general election.

It’s hard to fault correspondents for relying on what has usually worked in the past. But like generals fighting the last war, they wound up using muskets and cannonballs in an age of laser-guided missiles.

“Any political reporter whose humility level has not at least quintupled based on the events of this cycle should probably find something else to do in four years,” says Mark Halperin, ABC’s political director.


• Money: Journalists, including Halperin, repeated it like a mantra: Whoever raises the biggest bucks in the year before the election is a lock for the nomination. Except that Dean raised $40 million in 2003 and didn’t win a single primary. Kerry had to loan money to his campaign and has taken 15 of the first 17 contests.

̢ۢ Organization: Reporters love to write pieces about ground troops, phone banks and get-out-the-vote drives, fueled by the belief that this is what wins elections. Dean and Gephardt were favored in Iowa in part because they were seen as having the strongest field operations. But they finished well behind Kerry and Edwards.

• Polls: Tracking polls and other surveys have repeatedly led the press astray. There was Dean’s original asterisk status, followed by his huge lead at the beginning of January. There was Kerry and Edwards being all but written off because of low numbers in Iowa. In the days before last week’s Wisconsin primary, as news stories began to focus on Kerry vs. President Bush in the fall, Kerry held a 53 to 16 percent lead over Edwards in an American Research Group poll. MSNBC/Reuters/Zogby gave Kerry a 47-20 edge. Edwards wound up within six points of the Massachusetts senator, shattering the “expectations” set by the media.

• Endorsements: Reporters love them, and voters are often indifferent. Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean was trumpeted as a political earthquake but did little to help him. Nor did the backing of former senator Bill Bradley or Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. Popular South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn supported Kerry, who still lost the state to Edwards.

“The problem with all these ironclad rules set out by the 4,000 people who pay attention in the year before the election is that we don’t have a very long history in the modern era,” Halperin says. “A vibrant democracy can produce things that even the minds of Howard Fineman and Adam Nagourney can’t fathom,” he says, referring to the Newsweek and New York Times correspondents.

It’s all true. Of course, most of us pundits in the blogosphere fell into these same traps. But at least we’re not charging for it!

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Democracy, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    Of course, most of us pundits in the blogosphere fell into these same traps. But at least we’re not charging for it!

    I would if I could…

  2. Paul says:

    I dunno, I heard better guesses from the blogosphere and Rush Limbaugh than I did any of the big guys.


    OK not that the blogosphere was perfect but it “felt” more accurate to me.

  3. Tom says:

    The real problem is that big media hasn’t been reporting the reality of the primaries, but their wishes of how things should come out.

    Do you remember last summer when they reported some of the very early polls? Dean would have a lead of a few points and it would be reported as if whoever was just bearly behind him was already hopelessly outgunned and outclassed. They wanted Dean, so they made things sound like Dean was leading things by much more than he really was.

    This also shows up in the polling itself. How do you think it possible for so many polls to be so drastically wrong over the past few months? Kerry has a lead in the polls of 34 percent, with a margin of erro of only 3 percent, then wins by only 6 percent? Not just in one poll, but in several? It’s because these very biased pollsters are slanting their questions to get the answers they want. This is true of the primaries as well as how the primary candidates would fare vs Bush.

    It isn’t that the press is misidentifying things, it’s that they’re creating “truth” that isn’t, because they’re attempting to control the outcome through their reporting.

  4. Cedar Pundit says:

    I have pretty good predictions and I don’t charge anything for them. (smirky grin…)

    Click my name to go to my blog entry on February 12th which reviewed my previous predictions at the time of the Iowa Caucuses.