Monday, June 2, 2008

Election 2004: Another Media Drag Race

As the world watches the main event of Presidential Death Match 2008, it would be wise to remember the last bout, particularly election night and the aftermath of the Bush-Kerry vote. “We want to be accuracy central,” Dan Rather explained at 1:30 a.m. on the November 3, 2004. He was trying to explain why CBS wasn’t ready yet to call Ohio’s 20 electoral votes – and thus the election – for George W. Bush. In Washington, DC, Karl Rove was already declaring victory and firing up the limos. But unlike 2000, when Al Gore almost conceded before it became clear that Florida would try to hold a recount, the Democrats promised that they would fight from the start this time.

Early in the evening, TV journalists began reminding their viewers that the watchword would be caution. On CNN, Lou Dobbs decried the “mad rush” four years earlier that “blew up in our faces.” Rather than promising answers this time, an ad for NBC news led with questions: Will all the votes be counted? Will there be a clear winner?

For a while it looked like the counting might go on for weeks. As expected, Bush swept the southern and mountain states, while John Kerry carried most of the two coasts. In overall election terms, very little had changed in four years. The president was leading in the popular vote but neither candidate could claim the required electoral majority.

As it emerged that Ohio might be the new Florida, ABC’s Cokie Roberts complained, “This could be the worst of all possible worlds.” She was referring to the prospect of weeks of litigation. Although Bush was ahead, the Democrats were challenging Republican tactics and holding out for the counting of provisional ballots, a process that could take at least a week. GOP operatives called the tactic “bizarre, absurd, and ludicrous.” Rather was ready with one of his characteristic quips. “It’s turning into a sauna for the candidates,” he said. “All they can do is wait and sweat.”

Despite the uncertainty, some of the coverage did help explain why the vote was so close. For example, former Clinton aide Dee Dee Meyers noted that one in seven people was voting for the first time. Commenting on the high turnout, George Will offered a disquieting Vietnam analogy. “When we have high turnout we tend to be an unhappy county,” he opined, adding that “1968 was one of the worst years in US history. It ran up turnout, but I don’t think we want to do that constantly.” Democracy, what a bummer.

State initiatives were also influential, bringing out social conservatives who tended to back Bush. Ballot items calling for the rejection of same-sex marriage passed convincingly in 11 states; of these, nine went for Bush. In Ohio, a rigid ban passed by a two-to-one margin.

According to the TV pundits, other key aspects of the campaign were Kerry’s comeback in Iowa during primary season, the emergence of the Internet as a fundraising machine, Kerry’s loss of momentum after his party’s convention, another comeback in the debates, and the overall importance of Iraq and the “war on terror” as mobilizing – and polarizing – issues.

According to exit polls, however, the top issue was “moral values,” apparently playing to Bush’s strength. News organizations frequently use such polls, taken outside key precincts, to put predictions in context. Despite claims they had learned their lesson in 2000, anchors and analysts still had to fight an urge to give away what they believed to be happening before polling places closed. Their polls said, for instance, that Bush had an edge in support among both men and women, as well as with voters who described themselves as independents.

Exit polls mainly give pundits something to gab about as they wait for more definitive results. In 2004, the polling and overall outcome basically showed that the country remained divided. As Chris Matthews put it, “it’s an election between north and south that will be decided in the Midwest.” Cute.

Using CNN’s new high-tech wall of graphics, Jeff Greenfield posed various electoral scenarios, including the possibility of a 269-269 tie. That prospect – an irresistible story line for many reporters – lingered well into the night, an option that meant the House of Representatives would choose the president. In a GOP-dominated House, of course, Bush would be the obvious choice.

As the night wore on, speculation began to pass as fact. Shortly after 1 a.m. MSNBC announced that Bush was only one electoral vote shy of victory, while Kerry would have to win every remaining state to create a tie. In fact, Bush had substantially fewer electors tied up at that point. The desire to present an exciting story had eclipsed the promise of caution.

By morning, Bush actually had 254 electoral votes to Kerry’s 252. That left only Iowa and New Mexico, two states where Bush was clinging to a slim lead, and Ohio, where the likelihood that Kerry would win looked slim. He conceded by early in the afternoon.

After the 2000 race, an independent report commissioned by CNN ripped the networks and the Voter News Service, the exit polling groups owned by a consortium of new departments and the Associated Press, for their reckless performance. They had engaged in a “collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy,” and their haste to “be first” had led them to flawed reporting. For years later, the flaws remained. As polling places closed on November 2, TV anchors rushed to “call more states” and offer predictions that would be quietly dropped or corrected later. When they weren’t doing that, they frequently reminded viewers just how responsible they were being. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop some of them from questioning how long Kerry should wait before conceding defeat.

“Is this becoming the Right nation?” asked Peter Jennings at one point. And if so, was there any indication that Bush would be any more conciliatory in a second term? Without saying so directly, the second question acknowledged the obvious: The US remained a deeply divided country, yet there wasn’t much hope that the man from Crawford, Texas would decide to make peace and represent everyone. Four years on, let’s hope the answer to the first question turns out to be no.

Next: Post-Election Suspicions

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