By Charlie Leonard, visiting professor, Paul Simon Public Policy Institute
In my first full-time teaching post after years in the private sector, I had one of my earliest opportunities to serve as academic “expert” to the student media. A reporter for Lindenwood University’s KCLC, in St. Charles, Missouri, called me at home on Election Day evening to get my reaction to the news that professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura appeared to be on the verge of winning the governorship of the State of Minnesota.
Relax, I told the earnest, young reporter. When you wake up in the morning it will be either Skip Humphrey or Norm Coleman who has won the governorship.
What I didn’t take into consideration were things like Minnesota’s same-day voter registration and public financing for third-party candidates—not to mention the sheer stage presence and over-the-top charisma of a born performer like The Body. That may have been my first public Election Eve goof, but it certainly was not my last.
The Minnesota example serves as a reminder of how the media and their audiences tend to behave when election seasons wind toward their November conclusions: They are inevitably drawn to offbeat characters, and the races seem always to be “tightening” as we come down to the wire.
The irresistibility of “characters” in politics is as old as American journalism itself, and is manifested in this year’s cycle by media focus on the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat in Delaware. Christine O’Donnell, a political gadfly shunned at first even by her own party, has a long trail of colorful quotes and beliefs that seem far out of the mainstream. She’s youngish and bubbly to boot. The cameras can’t help themselves. Never mind that the pundits say she’s likely to lose to . . . wait . . . can you name him? . . . Chris Coons, the low-key executive of New Castle County.
Consider Kentucky’s U.S. Senate candidate, the firebrand Libertarian ophthalmologist Rand Paul; the combative Carl Paladino, running loudly and angrily for governor of New York; and Alaska’s stubble-faced pork opponent Joe Miller. All are receiving media attention far exceeding their proportional influence on national politics. And all, thankfully, are keeping the national cameras trained away from our own gubernatorial circus here in Illinois. Best to keep some fights within the family.
The “tightening” of races appears to be happening again, as the national “generic” Congressional polls show the national Republicans’ lead shrinking. Here in our own state, polls seem to be revealing significant shrinkage of Republican State Sen. Bill Brady’s wide lead over Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn. Why does this so often happen, and it is “real”?
Well, a horse race with a runaway winner is not as much fun to watch as one that is neck-and-neck, so political reportage is more breathless and intense when the outcome is in doubt. Not that the media invent electoral closeness—I just suggest that the close horse race is the coverage we seem to remember.
On the other hand, coverage of public opinion polling automatically assumes “tightening” when no such thing may really be occurring. Polls conducted at this time of year are analyzed, not in the context of a snapshot of where public opinion is now, but in comparison with polls taken weeks or months ago, when large numbers of voters were not even paying attention. When the pundits might reasonably have said in July, “Large numbers of voters are not paying attention,” they instead said “Bill Brady is building up an insurmountable lead.” Was the insurmountable lead real? Maybe. We’ll see.
Further, polls conducted early in the cycle often survey registered voters, while those conducted closer to the election often report results from more expensive surveys of likely voters. They may be, in effect, comparing apples to oranges. Likely voters are, as a group, older, better-off, better-educated, and better-informed voters. Comparing their preferences to the snapshot of a group containing a significant proportion of unlikely voters—and one taken weeks or months ago—may not really be meaningful.
This is all by way of saying that for those of us interested in the workings of government and the policy positions of the candidates, there is already drama enough. Perhaps we needn’t reward the oddballs with extra attention or overhype the poll stories to create the level of interest that ought to be there in the first place.
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