Did Campaign Coverage Ever Suggest the Senate GOP Would Have a Good Year?

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A network television pool cameraman sits in a plexiglass box during technical run-throughs a day ahead of the 2020 vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City, Utah, October 6, 2020. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

With Thom Tillis called the winner in North Carolina’s Senate race and Dan Sullivan called the winner in Alaska’s Senate race, Republicans now hold at least 50 seats in the upcoming Senate, and the two runoff elections in Georgia will determine control of the chamber.

Cumulatively, the polls in 2020 were pretty bad; particular pollsters were egregious. Quinnipiac’s results indicated the South Carolina Senate race was a tie between Lindsey Graham and Jaime Harrison on August 6, September 16, and September 30. Graham won, 54.5 percent to 44.2 percent.

Politics in the modern era is largely discussed within two mostly sealed subcultures. The much more influential system is the one involving Democratic officeholders, mainstream media that are subtly or openly rooting for Democrats, and pollsters who are badly measuring public opinion — all of which consistently paint a picture of Democrats doing exceptionally well or suggesting that the bad years for the party won’t be that bad.

There is a less-influential system involving these group’s counterparts on the right, and you could find plenty of cases of lesser-known conservative figures predicting a Trump landslide. But those confident forecasts did not influence public perceptions nearly as much as, say, coverage like this, from Politico:

Republicans are scrambling resources into red and purple states alike — from Kansas and South Carolina to Iowa and North Carolina — cutting down Democrats’ massive financial edge and hoping for a late-breaking turn in their favor, similar to four years ago. But their defensive posture underscores just how broad the playing field is, with nearly a dozen Republican senators in various levels of danger, and only two Democratic seats at risk.

Republicans have poured money into Alaska, Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina in October to shore up their red wall, while races in more expected battlegrounds like Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Arizona are continuing to see record-shattering spending.

Except . . . a bunch of those races didn’t turn out all that close. On that above list, Republican Senate candidates won Kansas by twelve percentage points, South Carolina by ten points, Iowa by almost seven points, Maine by eight points and, as of this writing, Alaska by 20 points.

Not every race described as close turned out to be a comfortable GOP win. Tillis’s win in North Carolina was by about 1.7 percentage points, the Georgia races will go to runoffs, and Martha McSally did lose the Arizona Senate race by a bit more than two points.

In 2004, the now-disgraced political journalist Mark Halperin coined the phrase “the Gang of 500” to describe the “campaign consultants, strategists, pollsters, pundits, and journalists who make up the modern-day political establishment.” Halperin rarely disputed that the Gang of 500 was overwhelmingly Democratic.

In today’s environment, a perception of impending sweeping Democratic Senate wins is shaped by campaign consultants who want their clients to be covered as winners, reporters who are inclined to cover Democratic candidates as winners, and by pollsters who badly misjudge the electorate in ways that make Democratic candidates look like big winners.

The 500 most influential voices who shape the narrative about campaigns and elections are overwhelmingly psychologically, emotionally, politically, and perhaps even financially invested in the success of the Democratic Party. There are simply too few voices who dispute the narrative of impending Democratic landslides. When someone like Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group polling firm comes along with survey data that run counter to that narrative, he is mocked, dismissed, and repudiated. Thus, much campaign coverage turns into wish-casting; at least once a cycle, a Great Southern Democratic Hope is covered with great hype and predictably disappointing election results.

At some point, in the not-too-distant future, you will probably see some mainstream national publication with a glowing profile of Jon Ossoff or Raphael Warnock or both, declaring that they are generating unprecedented enthusiasm and excitement in Georgia. You may even see a comparison to young Barack Obama. You will probably see polls that show the Democrats either leading or quite competitive.

And it will be as if everything that was misleading, implausible, or erroneous about the coverage before this Election Day never happened.





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