Posted by rflacks on:
If you rely on the New York Times, NPR and network TV for your news, you are expecting that the Democrats will suffer heavy defeat in the upcoming election. For months now, the media mainstream has framed the election story in such terms. The GOP base fired up and angry, while the Democratic base is disillusioned and disappointed and Obama has lost the support of the independent electorate. Voters historically, the story goes, have voted out incumbents when unemployment is high. One has only to look at the polls to expect that the Democrats will lose control of congress.
It's certainly a plausible story and it may even turn out to be true. What's strange is that this is the ONLY frame that the above mentioned media have been using all these months-despite the fact that other, equally plausible, explanations of the poll data could have been considered.
Polling reports started to show a Republican lead in the spring and summer, and it didn't take long for the Times to make those findings into taken for granted predictions of the outcome. It was hardly ever suggested that such poll results had to be seen as very limited in their predictive value. What were the limits?
- Most voters were hardly aware of the fall election.
- Polls were based on weightings of ‘likely' voters-usually determined by asking people how certain they were that they would vote or how attentive they were to the election. Likely voters measured in such ways are older, whiter, richer and more male than the electorate as a whole. Likely voter surveys are inevitably tilted toward the Republicans especially before the campaign season gets going.
- Telephone surveys are probably skewed toward older voters since they probably miss a lot of cell phones, and don't adequately sample those who no longer have land lines.
The main thing the summer polls could be said to be finding was not that the Republicans were going to ‘win' but that the Democrats had to find ways to motivate and turn out their voters. That would be true even if there was little mass disappointment given typical voting demographics in non presidential elections (where older, whiter and richer folk are always more likely voters). But voter mobilization this year was even more urgent. In that sense the ‘enthusiasm gap' was certainly a big challenge...
But the media frame focused on ‘anger', on tea party energy and anti-incumbent fever. That was a real story-but I think it's now clear that the story was about the Republican Party and its internal chaos. It was GOP incumbents who were losing primaries. It was electable ‘moderate' GOP candidates who were being defeated by extreme rightists. These things were certainly covered extensively, but often framed as if the tea partiers somehow reflected a national mood that had turned against Obama and progressive program. Polls that showed that the majority favored the healthcare reform or wanted more far-reaching progressive healthcare policies were ignored.
Polls that indicated majority support for government action to provide jobs were likewise ignored.
Fortunately the Democrats and their support structure understood the urgent need for voter mobilization and that process has been going on across the country. Democratic Party fundraising has outstripped Republican Party efforts (but not of course the hundreds of millions of corporate money fueling the non-party propaganda machine). Grassroots voter mobilization seems to be clicking; Obama's campaigning has certainly been well-designed and effective in generating enthusiasm.
In the past few days, the polls have been turning. Senate races, including those of Russ Feingold, Patty Murray, Joe Sestak (PA) and Jack Conway (Kentucky) now show Democrats leading or at least dead even the toxic extremism rampant among GOP candidates is getting attention. ‘Experts' have decided that Democratic control of the Senate is now likely, but still expect the Republicans to take the House. But I'm still seeing mainstream media emphasis on the Republican landslide, and little reporting that the tide may be shifting.
Based on past history, it would be ‘normal' for the party in power to lose as many as 25-30 house seats. Indeed, the most likely Democratic losses are in 2-3 dozen seats Democrats won in 2006 and 2008 that re in Republican majority districts. Most of those are ‘blue dogs'-meaning that the Democratic caucus in the house will be more liberal after this election. And if the Dems lose 30 seats Nancy Pelosi will still be the speaker.
I'm saying all this not to predict a bright outcome in November, but to argue that the major media reporting on politics is woefully inadequate. The Times et al are so fixated on the alleged GOP tsunami that they've failed as serious trustworthy sources of necessary information about the dynamics of the campaign.
This incompetence is particularly glaring given that the blog world is pretty rich with alternative framings and analysis. Read Daily Kos, for one example, for better reportage on the election than anything you'll find in the national media.
I can't explain the incompetence. I'll conjecture that one factor is the general media assumption that the American population is dominated by what Mencken called the ‘booboisie'-that the American majority can be expected to choose the simplistic, rightwing and silly. Given that basic assumption, it was clear from the start that Obama could never be nominated and never be elected. Since he was in fact elected, it is clear that he can't actually be the president. Since he's actually doing the job, it's clear that the people will inevitably reject him
Lots of us on the progressive side tend to share some of these ways of looking at the general public. There surely is plenty of racism, ignorance, false consciousness and obtuseness out there. It's what the Republican propaganda machine is trying to stoke every minute of every day. My point here though is this: even the flawed tools of polling, used with appropriate care, suggest a far more nuanced picture of that public.
Whatever democratic possibilities remain for the USA depend on activists having such nuanced understandings of how people in general relate to the political. Right now, the future does depend a lot on how the coming election turns out, since Democrats in power provide space for progressive reform. My bet is that that there's still time to win that space.