Reporting the Point Spread

Coverage of the lead-up to tomorrow’s Iowa caucuses reminds me of this SDB post about news coverage of presidential primaries. Iowa is the first of many stops on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination. Tomorrow, and in the weeks to come, we’re going to hear an awful lot about how someone or other out-performed fell short of expectations.

In primary elections there is, of course, a formal definition of victory: whoever gets the most votes, wins. (In many cases, delegate assignment is proportional to vote count, but the principle is the same.) But the reporters will try to introduce a sort of higher-level standard based on whether a candidate actually does better or worse than expected.

This can be taken to ludicrous extremes, where just after a given primary you’ll hear how the leader was dealt a “stunning blow” because he only got 65% of the vote instead of the expected 75%, and how his campaign “will be considering the impact in coming days” and “reevaluating their strategy” to try to “deal with this setback”, while the second candidate’s campaign “is encouraged by the surprisingly strong showing” because he got 25% instead of 20% and goes into the next stage “with new confidence”. The reporters will try to treat this as some sort of indication that the second guy is in a position to somehow catch up with and beat the leader while the leader’s campaign is actually in trouble. Indeed, they may go further than that and outright declare the second guy the victor in the contest, despite the fact that the first guy got more than twice as many votes.

That’s why I stopped watching TV news a long time ago. If there is no story, they’ll make one up.

There isn’t a clear-cut leader at this point, although that mostly seems to be because Howard Dean doesn’t know when to shut up. (Hint: It’s most of the time.) The polls are all over the place right now, and right now things look like they’re up for grabs.

But we’re going to be hearing all about how the order has been thrown into confusion by some unexpected returns. For instance, Wesley Clark has decent support nationally, but the most recent MSNBC/Reuters Zogby poll has him with just 3% of the Iowa vote. What if Clark doubles this up by pulling in a whopping 6% tomorrow? Is the General’s Juggernaut off and rolling?

Not really.

Wherever you live, whatever you’re counting, 6% is 6%. And 6% ain’t much.

But if it happens, we’re going to be hearing about it non-stop for days.

Go check DenBeste’s post out. It was written at the end of March, and the discussion of the primaries is really just a set-up to the post’s real topic, that of results measured against expectations during the early days of the Iraq campaign. A lot of what he’s got to say about the drive to Baghdad can also be applied to the post-invasion occupation.