Most people who follow corporate news were probably surprised by the midterm election outcomes, which saw Democrats hold far more seats than predicted.
“Expected Republican Red Wave Now a Ripple,” announced USA Today (11/8/22). “Biden Touts Midterm Results as Democrats Defy Expectations, Avoid GOP Blowout,” was ABCNews.com‘s headline (11/9/22). The Washington Post (11/9/22) reported that “few foresaw that Democrats would defy expectations of a ‘Red Wave.'”
But whose expectations, exactly, did Democrats defy? It’s true that few in the media foresaw these results, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy they put into prognostications.
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (11/9/22) compiled an illustrative sampling of headlines in the lead up to Election Day that voiced the media consensus, including:
- “Red Tsunami Watch” (Axios, 10/23/22)
- “Why the Midterms Are Going to Be Great for Donald Trump” (CNN.com, 10/26/22)
- “Breaking Down the GOP’s Midterm Momentum” (Politico, 10/19/22)
- “Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House” (New York Times, 10/25/22)
How did the pundits and journalists get it so wrong? Both Milbank and Judd Legum (Popular Information, 11/10/22) point out that, in the wake of Trump’s 2016 victory, his overperformance relative to most polls meant conservative polling firms that forecast stronger GOP performance ended up with more accurate predictions. Those firms, including Trafalgar and Rasmussen, aren’t fully transparent and don’t follow industry standards for data collection. (Nor do they hide their biases: After the 2020 election, Rasmussen invoked Stalin to suggest that Vice President Mike Pence had the power to overturn Biden’s victory.) Yet respected aggregation sites like 538 include and rank them quite highly (Trafalgar an A-, Rasmussen a B). The weight given to these outfits was skewing polling averages in the GOP’s favor.
But as Legum notes, even if they had gotten it right, prognostication-as-reporting is utterly dysfunctional. Polling is ultimately a guessing game, which means it’s often wrong (see FAIR.org, 10/3/22), and it takes space and resources away from the kinds of substantive coverage that would be actually useful:
Prediction-based coverage comes at a high cost because it crowds out the coverage that voters actually need. To make an informed decision, voters need to know the practical impact of voting for each candidate.
In the case of the 2022 midterms, if Republicans regain control of the House, they will use the threat of a global economic collapse to try to force benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare. We don’t have to speculate about this. We know it is true because Republican leaders have said it publicly. But, as Popular Information previously reported, major publications almost completely ignored the potential impact of the election on Social Security and Medicare.
The political media has substituted polling analysis, which is something only people managing campaigns really need, for substantive analysis of the positions of the candidates, something that voters need.
Horse race election coverage is nothing new, of course; reporting on polls and tactics in place of substantive issues is corporate media’s bread and butter (see, e.g., FAIR.org, 10/14/08; Extra!, 11/14). It generates clicks from anxious election watchers without risking charges of bias, whereas seriously talking about the issues would almost inevitably expose how far candidates are from truly representing most people’s interests—and some more so than others.
Prediction coverage takes political journalism and flips it on its head: Rather than informing voters so they can make decisions in their best interests at the ballot box, it obscures the most important issues with its endless guessing games about what those voters want.
It’s worse than useless; this kind of journalism works to shield politicians from accountability. And in this political moment, it’s even more dangerous than that: Setting false expectations is part of the GOP strategy for credibly claiming election fraud. When Republican pollsters release results that suggest they can’t lose, Republican voters are primed to disbelieve any losses that happen. And when even “liberal” media enable those false expectations, it lends credibility to those election fraud claims.
While in the vast majority of races this year, GOP candidates appear to be conceding without a fight, in 2024, with a presidential race on the line and hundreds of deniers firmly ensconced in Congress, results that don’t go the GOP’s way could come under a much stronger challenge. And news outlets’ substitution of fortunetelling for substantive reporting could become more consequential than ever.
By Julie Hollar
Julie Hollar is FAIR’s senior analyst and managing editor. Julie has a Ph.D. in Political Science from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.