Why Is The Media Still Pretending It's A Horserace?

11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For many months, the media has been the Keeper Of The Horserace, fondly pointing out to the public that Generic Democrat was outperforming Generic Republican by several million miles, and thus, despite the fact that Barack Obama has pretty consistently led in the polls -- save for a brief period after the Republican National Convention that was preceded by predictions of a bounce, and followed by rapt fascination that the widely-predicted bounce was actually occurring -- the public has routinely been told that Obama was underperforming, and struggling "to close the deal."

Of course, the recent New York Times poll has Obama up 14 points nationally, with the Democratic candidate cracking the over-fifty percent threshold, all of which has occurred in an environment in which the overall fundamental trends in polling have been anything but volatile. States like North Carolina and West Virginia -- which few suggested would be close -- have become battlegrounds, while states like Michigan -- which were thought to be battlegrounds -- have been all but conceded by the Republicans. Nevertheless, we are still told that we are in the midst of a horserace. John McCain's latest retreading of his convention speech is being called a "comeback" speech. This morning, on MSNBC, some grizzled poll-taking veteran declared, "Nobody knows what's going to happen, the numbers go up and down."

I suppose that from the standpoint of quantum mechanics, John McCain is currently in the process of simultaneously winning and losing the Presidential election. But one can discuss probabilities fairly. Months ago, the press had bold things to say about probabilities -- Obama should be up ten points in this highly-favorable-to-Democrats environment! Obama needs to hit fifty percent to really close the deal! Well, those conditions are being met by the Democratic candidate, with increasing regularity. But this is not being acknowledged with the consistency or the boldness of before. Allow me to suggest the big "DUH": the horse race is just good for business.

And look, I understand that. It's hard to banish the words "a LOT can happen in [X amount of time]." And there are things that could happen to change the dynamics of the race -- including some that fall into the "heaven forbid" category. And really, outside of wishing for calamity, who can fault political writers from wishing for something interesting about which to write. Think what might happen in the event of a 269-269 tie! People will be setting themselves on fire in the streets if that happens. But when fealty to the horserace, and the notion that game-changing events should as a fait accompli, compromises logic in reporting, that's a problem.

Matt Yglesias presents a good example of this, in which the Washington Post works and works and works to find just the right individual voters to stand in for the "undecided" phenomenon in Virginia, and leads with one Robert Shobe -- a career Navy man who needs the "presidential candidates get more specific about their foreign policy." Now, wouldn't you say that the existence of a red-state resident, who shares something in common with McCain (the Navy), who's nonetheless of the mind that he could go either way with his vote because of the candidates' stances on foreign policy, demonstrates that the race is actually pretty far from a horserace? Matt writes:

If he's undecided, that's a sign of an impending Obama victory, not a close-fought contest. And how critical is Virginia, anyway?'s averages show larger Obama leads in every state Al Gore won, plus Ohio, Colorado, and Florida. Adding any one of those three states to the Gore states (all of which currently show large Obama leads) would suffice to get Obama over the 270 mark.

Seems to me that the fight to win Robert Shobe's vote is a fight to determine how much icing gets put on the cake: a lot, or a whole lot. But, a LOT can happen in [X amount of time], I guess!

The Pretense [Matt Yglesias]

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