The press is desperate for a horse race

Thumbs on the scale

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On Sunday, The New York Times released fresh polling data from four swing states. The results were so good for Democrat Joe Biden that his campaign may have allowed itself a cautious smile or two — Biden had huge lead in Minnesota, and was ahead in Wisconsin, Nevada, and New Hampshire. Accompanying the polling article, the Times published a political snapshot from each of those four states. But the snapshots read much differently than the polling results, as the Times seemed to lean hard into the idea that Biden was slumping.

“MINNESOTA: Some See an Edge for Trump,” read one headline. The Times interviewed just two people for the article and both thought Biden was facing trouble in Minnesota. Trump “looks stronger politically in the state than he did in 2016,” and Biden was “hardly a lock to carry the state,” the Times reported, even though the daily just found Biden's lead to be nine points, seven weeks from Election Day.

Looking at Michigan, the Times marveled at how the crowds for Trump were so much larger than Biden’s, even though Biden has led in 29 of the last 30 Michigan polls taken this year. And in Florida, the Times stressed that Biden “has been slipping among Hispanic voters,” but made no mention of Biden’s historic advantage with seniors.

This year’s not-so-dirty secret: The campaign press desperately wants to tell an exciting election season story. Journalists like to create storylines, tension, compelling characters, and relay wild plot twists. More excitement means a larger audience —the press wants a horse race because it’s way more entertaining. And for most campaigns over the last 25 years, the media have been blessed with lots of nail-biting and historic battles. Not so much in 2020, where the contest has remained locked in a stubborn holding pattern, and shows no signs of budging soon.

"For all of this year’s upheaval, the race has stayed relatively stable, with Biden comfortably ahead in national polls," Politico recently conceded. “The fact is the presidential race is kind of boring from a polling standpoint right now,” added Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.

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The problem with that scenario is it produces relatively boring content. How often can news outlets report, "Biden Maintains Comfortable Lead"? The temptation for the press is to put their thumbs on the scale for Trump in the hopes of marketing a closer race.

It's an outgrowth of Both Sides journalism, which suggests if the Trump campaign is lagging, which it clearly is, that means Biden's run must be facing big obstacles, too. Which, of course, makes no sense since a two-person campaign is, by definition, a zero sum event. Both campaigns can't be struggling at the same time.

"Why Biden could still lose the suburbs to Trump," Politico announced last week, leaning hard on provoking Democratic anxieties with a click-bait headline. It's true that Biden "could" lose the suburbs, but it's also much more likely he'll win them.

When Black Lives Matters protests erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shot an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, lots of journalists rushed in to declare that a law-and-order campaign game changer could propel Trump to a second term. (“This is How Biden Loses,” The Atlantic announced.) But polling shows the event did nothing to change the national race and that Biden received higher marks for dealing with the crisis.

Polling continues to be a huge hurdle in the media’s pursuit of a more compelling storyline. But news outlets keep trying: "According to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, Joe Biden leads Pres. Trump by a slim 6 points in Wisconsin."

Fact: Trump won Wisconsin in 2016, albeit by a very narrow margin. For his Democratic rival to be ahead in that state by six points in mid-September does not qualify as a "slim" lead, it qualifies as a major shift in the polarized state and a huge setback for the Republican. (If Trump were leading in Wisconsin by 6 points today, there's not a single news outlet that would refer to that as a "slim" advantage.)

 NBC News took the unusual angle of suggesting that even though Trump trails in virtually every national poll taken this year, there’s still bad news for Biden because on the single issue of the economy Trump still leads, slightly. (Dems are “nervous”!) It’s hard to watch and read coverage like that and not assume the press is working overtime to create a better horse race.

This has been going on for months. "Trump has a real shot of winning," announced a CNN piece in May. After acknowledging that Biden led in virtually every poll taken this year, and most key swing state polls, CNN stressed, "Biden may be favored, but this race is far from over."

It's curious that the last time a Democratic incumbent president ran for re-election, in 2012, the common media narrative was, 'He might lose.' Today, Trump's running for re-election and the common media narrative is, 'He might win.' Both play off Democratic fears, which also drives traffic for news outlets.  

Twelve months ago, major news organizations made plans to turn the 2020 race into an entertainment extravaganza. It’s okay for them to admit now that a thrilling horse race might never materialize.

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GOOD STUFF:

For the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American feels the need to endorse a presidential candidate, Joe Biden:

The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people—because he rejects evidence and science. The most devastating example is his dishonest and inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost more than 190,000 Americans their lives by the middle of September. He has also attacked environmental protections, medical care, and the researchers and public science agencies that help this country prepare for its greatest challenges.

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FUN STUFF — BECAUSE WE ALL NEED A BREAK

U2, “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Crazy Tonight” live on Letterman

One of the things I miss most during the pandemic are live shows, and the magic that sometimes happens when musical notes fly around a room and transform people, in large and small ways.

As an example, I was reminded of this U2 performance on David Letterman’s show back in 2009. The band had just released a new album and performed each night on the show, in the tiny Ed Sullivan Theater. “Crazy” was a brand new and most people in the audience had probably never heard it before.  But the performance is so passionate, so perfect, so embracing that two-thirds of the way through the entire TV crowd sprang to its feet, cheering. Then Bono dug deeper and catapulted the whole thing into another orbit.

It's not a hill, it's a mountain
As you start out the climb
You see, for me, I've been shouting
But we're gonna make it all the way to the light
But I know I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight

P.S. My daughter and I, who was 12 at the time, were in the neighborhood of the Ed Sullivan Theater that night. After the show’s taping, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. came outside to greet fans. We saw the commotion and darted over. She got to reach out and shake his hand. It was one of those exquisite NYC moments.