It’s clear now that most prognosticators underestimated the depth of the Republican triumph in the midterms by slavishly hewing to the polls, some of which were wildly off the mark.
But as one Republican after another declared victory, there was another aspect to the coverage that struck me: The focus remained solidly on the Democrats and why they had so badly blown the election.
In 2006, the story, in a nutshell, was DEMOCRATS WIN. In 2014, despite the headlines about the GOP seizing control of the Senate, the story was, in essence, DEMOCRATS LOSE.
Now perhaps this was because some journalists were depressed about the Democrats’ no-good, terrible, very bad night. And perhaps it was because the losing Democrats were bigger names—Sam Nunn’s daughter, Morris Udall’s son, Jimmy Carter’s grandson, David Pryor’s son, and folks like Charlie Crist and Kay Hagan—than such Republican newcomers as David Perdue and Thom Tillis.
But I think something else was at work.
The Republicans consciously tried to nationalize the election around opposition to President Obama. And it worked. But having done that, there’s no deep analysis to be done about how they’re now going to enact this or that grand policy. The Republicans, unlike in 1994, didn’t ask for that kind of mandate.
So the chatter is about Obama, why he is so unpopular, what happened to the hope-and-change guy of 2008, and why his fellow Democrats put up No Trespassing signs to keep him out of their states. That’s why the talk is largely about the losing party rather than the winners.
Indeed, the editors of National Review say Republicans should do little in the next two years other than set themselves up for the next presidential race:
“The desire to prove Republicans can govern also makes them hostage to their opponents in the Democratic Party and the media. It empowers Senator Harry Reid, whose dethroning was in large measure the point of the election… If voters come to believe that a Republican Congress and a Democratic president are doing a fine job of governing together, why wouldn’t they vote to continue the arrangement in 2016?”
Liberal outlets that have spent years complaining about GOP obstructionism now say Harry Reid and company should block whatever they can:
“Obstruction, while destructive for policymaking, has been good politics for the Republicans,” says the New Republic. “… If Republicans are going to reap the political benefits of indiscriminant fundraising then Democrats should do so as well. The advantage of filibustering is that it allows a party to block progress without taking all of the blame for it, for the simple reason that most of the public—and, surprisingly, most of the media—don’t realize that filibusters are basically thwarting majority rule.”
One exception to the MSM’s Democratic-centric coverage has been crediting the Republican Party with recruiting good candidates rather than forfeiting winnable states with a Todd Akin or Christine O’Donnell. And GOP officials were happy to help reporters write that story, as in this Washington Post piece:
“One night in early September, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called a longtime colleague, Sen. Pat Roberts, from his living room in Louisville, furious about the 78-year-old Republican’s fumbling and lethargic reelection campaign.
“Roberts had raised a paltry $62,000 in August. He was airing no ads. His campaign staff, mostly college students, had gone back to school. Most worrisome, McConnell had in his hands a private polling memo predicting Roberts would lose in Kansas — an alarming possibility that could cost the GOP a Senate majority.
“McConnell was blunt. A shake-up was needed. Roberts unleashed a flurry of expletives at McConnell. Ultimately, though, the ex-Marine gave in. The next day, he led campaign manager Leroy Towns, 70, a retired college professor and confidant, into a Topeka conference room and fired him. There were tears. ‘It hurt,’ Towns said.”
Roberts, of course, held his seat after what looked like a strong challenge from independent Greg Orman.
Which brings me back to the question of polls. In the final stretch of the campaign, pundits on the left and the right portrayed Orman as a possible winner over Roberts. Alison Grimes as a possible winner over McConnell. Kay Hagan as a possible winner over Thom Tillis. Michelle Nunn as a possible winner over David Perdue. Bruce Braley a possible winner over Joni Ernst.
They did all of this, and more, on the basis of polls that showed these races to be incredibly tight. Even allowing for undecided voters breaking for the GOP, reporters and commentators used these polls to describe a real horse race, when in fact McConnell clobbered Grimes by 15 points and Nunn couldn’t even get to the runoff that everyone expected.
I’ve been preaching all along that midterm polls are especially unreliable, because the question of turnout is such a wild card. (And by the way, you could have saved yourself a lot of time by not reading all those stories about the Democrats’ incredible, $60-million turnout machine, which in the end did little turning out.)
Among the most embarrassing journalistic failures were right outside the Beltway: the conventional wisdom that Virginia Sen. Mark Warner would easily defeat former GOP chairman Ed Gillespie, and that Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown would take the top job against Republican Larry Hogan.
Instead, Hogan trounced Brown by 54 to 45 percent. Warner is leading by 12,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast, and Gillespie has not conceded.
A few days ago, the furthest the Washington Post would go was to question “what happens if Warner doesn’t win big. All public polls predict that Warner will defeat his opponent, former lobbyist Ed Gillespie..But surveys have narrowed considerably since summer, with Warner’s lead shrinking to as little as seven points in a poll released Friday.”
And the Post’s warning a few days ago in the Maryland race: “The nonpartisan Cook Political Report declared the race a toss-up, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site estimated Brown had a 93 percent chance of prevailing.”
Nice going, Nate. He posted an item after midnight Tuesday with the headline, “Senate Polls Had a Significant Democratic Skew.”
But the problem isn’t Nate Silver, it’s journalists who use polls to sound informed. A hometown paper like the Post should have picked up the dramatic swings in these races from its own door-knocking and pulse-taking and covered them as daily front-page dramas.
The political landscape changed Tuesday night. But in the months since the national press was caught napping by Eric Cantor’s Virginia primary loss to an obscure professor, not much has changed for the pundits.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.