‘Stampede’ journalism got the midterm vote wrong

If everybody gets it wrong, then for career-building purposes, nobody did.

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A marquee in downtown Atlanta displays the word “vote” on Election Day, Nov. 8 in Atlanta.

A marquee in downtown Atlanta displays the word “vote” on Election Day, Nov. 8 in Atlanta.

Brynn Anderson/AP

As so often happens, the national political press was virtually unanimous in getting the 2022 midterm elections all wrong. Indeed, it’s hard to recall a major political event since the Clinton administration, when I first paid serious attention, that the Washington news media has gotten largely right.

That’s mainly because they tend to be gregarious animals, ambitious political reporters, and the safest place during any stampede is in the middle of the herd. Outliers get hurt. See, if everybody gets it wrong, then for career-building purposes, nobody did. Everybody’s status and position remain secure as the vast, lowing herd moves on.

Sure, it’s only a metaphor, but one I’ve always found useful to explain the behavior of the national political media. Moo!

To me, the most striking example of this phenomenon remains the near-unanimous zeal accompanying George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s determination to invade Iraq and confront Saddam Hussein’s imaginary arsenal of “weapons of mass destruction.” With dissenters and skeptics all but purged from the Washington press — one New York Times columnist listed prominent liberal members of the “I Can’t Believe I’m a Hawk Club” — pundits and TV talking heads donned camo fatigues and “embedded” with the troops. The networks covered the Pentagon’s ballyhooed “shock and awe” bombing campaign like New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Ratings soared.

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“Regime change,” the Bush administration called it. A bigger military boondoggle and diplomatic disaster can scarcely be imagined.

But was any prominent journalist’s career damaged by their credulousness? None that I can recall.

Nor were the handful of skeptics rewarded. The herd moved on.

Needless to say, the stakes were far less dramatic during the recent midterm elections. But the unanimity was nevertheless familiar. A recent pre-election Times headline: “Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House.”

“Reality is setting in,” reads the subhead.

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” in the immortal words of baseball philosopher Yogi Berra.

Even so, the Times was far from alone in anticipating what some dubbed a “red tsunami” of Republican victories. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, one of a handful of journalists who remained skeptical, compiled a list. “The bottom is dropping out of the 2022 election for Democrats,” headlined CNN a week before Election Day. “Democrats fear midterm drubbing as party leaders rush to defend blue seats,” was the Post’s take. CNN spoke of a “nightmare scenario” haunting Democrats. On the day before the election, Milbank pointed out, Bloomberg news trumpeted, “Inflation-Focused Voters Defy Biden’s Bid to Change the Subject.”

On CNN and NBC, the two news channels I most often watch, scarcely an episode was broadcast that did not feature a motorist fueling up a school bus-sized SUV and complaining about gasoline prices. Well-fed shoppers carped about the rising cost of groceries. Inflation, viewers were repeatedly informed, was pretty much the only thing American voters really cared about. Not to be outdone, Fox News also did some pre-election gloating: “Biden ridiculed for ‘despicable’ speech on ‘threat’ to democracy: ‘What delusion looks like.”’

Even some Democrats, Milbank archly pointed out, joined a premature circular firing squad. On election eve, veteran Democratic operative Hillary Rosen told CNN: “When voters tell you over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake.”

And then the votes came in. Democrats narrowly lost the House, for which we shall all pay the price with two years of Bad Republican Theater. But they held the Senate, and with it the power to nominate federal judges not beholden to the right-wing Federalist Society. There’s nothing much GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell can do about it this time.

“Let’s go, Brandon!”

Plodding old Joe Biden, who imagined that Americans cared more about salvaging their democracy and their rights as citizens than the (rapidly dropping) price of gasoline, was proven right. Overall, it was the most successful midterm election result by any Democratic president since FDR. The president’s chief of staff Ron Klain put it this way: “Joe Biden has been consistently underestimated because the political commentary culture highly values qualities that make someone a talented pundit on TV but undervalues the qualities that make someone a great national leader: wisdom, decency and determination.”

Milbank, who has hung in there since his own failed attempt at TV punditry some years ago, wasn’t the only observer to question the inevitability of GOP triumph. MVP blogger Kevin Drum kept asking which you’d rather have, expensive fuel and one of the 10 million steady jobs created on President Biden’s watch, or cheap gasoline and no job. The question answered itself.

Meanwhile, the big loser needn’t be named. Almost without exception, every prominent 2020 election denier on the 2022 ballot lost.

Joe Biden was right; Americans care about their democracy after all.

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