Horse-race coverage of politics and policy is bad enough. What's worse is that it so frequently gets the winning horse wrong.
It's generally accepted that the news media obsess over horse-race political coverage at the expense of serious examinations of important issues. Media critics on the left, right, and in the middle tend to agree that there is too much focus on polling and not enough on policy, while many reporters seem proud of their focus on the game rather than the stakes. (Politico is, after all, called "Politico," not "Policy-o," and features blogs "on Politics," "on Hill intrigue," "on Gossip," and "on Campaigns" -- but not "on Policy." ABC News' senior White House correspondent calls his blog "Political Punch." And so on.)
The media's obsessive focus on politics does not, however, mean their political assessments are of a high quality. Remember David Broder's prediction that Hurricane Katrina would spark a recovery in George W. Bush's political standing? Or Matt Lauer's suggestion that Bush's poor approval ratings were a political blessing for the GOP? Chuck Todd's statement that if Democrats won control of Congress in November of 2006, Bush's approval rating would be above 50 by the following July? Katie Couric's suggestion that the Bush White House was "breathing a sigh of relief" in response to a poll in which Bush had an all-time low approval rating? Howard Fineman's late-2005 argument that Democrats, not Republicans, had reason to be gloomy about their electoral prospects? Calling the media's coverage of politics and policy "horse-race journalism" is an insult to horse-race journalism -- the Daily Racing Form isn't in the habit of advising readers to bet on the filly with the broken leg.
Not only does the media's keen interest in politics frequently fail to result in politically astute observations, there is also considerable evidence that they tend to overrate the Republicans' political skills -- and the public's predisposition to prefer the GOP.
And that explains the media's reaction to this week's polling data.
Multiple polls out this week found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 percent of the American people favor the inclusion of a public plan in health care reform. And polls showed that the Republican Party is less popular than ever. And the Republicans in Washington generally oppose a public plan. And the GOP got its butt kicked in last year's election, in which health care reform was a major issue. And polls show the public trusts Republicans in Congress less than anyone else -- even insurance companies -- when it comes to health care.
Put all of that together and you would think the media would have been full of reports and analysis about how the Republicans were in danger of fading into oblivion if they continue to stand in the way of a public health care option, right?
Just imagine how the media would treat the Democrats if they were opposing a GOP proposal -- say, invading a country that didn't attack us -- at a time when that proposal had the support of 80 percent of the public and had been a key issue in the most recent campaign, in which the Republicans had won control of the White House and sizable majorities in Congress.
But the GOP's historic unpopularity largely escaped the media's attention. The public's support for a public plan didn't get as much attention as you would think, either, given that health care is currently the public policy debate in Washington. And the idea that the already-unpopular Republican Party is in danger of consigning itself to minority status for the next generation if it continues to block a health care policy proposal that enjoys overwhelming public support? Nowhere to be found.
Instead, we kept hearing what an awful week it was for President Obama.
Take, for example, Howard Kurtz's column today, headlined "Obama's Rough Patch":
His numbers are dropping. Public doubts are rising. He's mired in Washington gridlock. Lots of people are mad at him.
With the president's poll numbers dropping to either 63 percent (NYT/CBS) or 56 (NBC/WSJ), the pundits are racing to proclaim his honeymoon over.
Yes, you read that right: Obama's approval rating is at 63 percent, and "the pundits" say this constitutes a "rough patch." When the last president skipped town, tail between his legs, he was lucky if he could get to 63 percent by adding two consecutive approval ratings together. And we're supposed to believe that Obama's 63 is some sort of danger sign? Right.
A common theme this week -- and one that has been bubbling up for months -- is that Obama is more popular than his policy positions. This is almost always portrayed as a negative by the media, though they rarely bother to explain why it is a threat to Obama's agenda rather than an opportunity. In any case, given that the Republican Party and its policy positions are both extremely unpopular, it seems the media's assessment of political peril is a bit off target. But as these headlines compiled by Think Progress show, reporters rushed to hype Obama's poll peril:
"Sticker Shock -- Obama still popular; his policies, not so much" [ABC's The Note]
"Polls find rising concern with Obama on key issues" [Reuters]
"Obama's popularity: Problems testing it" [Chicago Tribune's The Swamp]
"Polls Show Declining Support For Obama Decisions" [U.S. News & World Report's Political Bulletin]
"Is 'Smooth Sailing' Over for Obama?" [Washington Post]
The Los Angeles Times' Andrew Malcolm epitomized the media's rush to portray the week's polls as bad news for the Democrats. Here's Malcolm:
According to the new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, 56% of Americans still approve of the president, though that's down from 61%.
But 58% say they think the Democratic president and Democrat-controlled Congress should really focus on holding the deficit down, even if that means economic recovery will take a little longer. Alarmed at the scale of spending was one description.
It isn't at all clear what that last line even means. "One description" by whom? What is clear is that Malcolm made it up; the poll to which he is referring doesn't say anything about anyone being "alarmed."
Malcolm, continuing directly:
That ain't gonna happen on Capitol Hill after Democrats endured two Republican presidential terms in the political wilderness. So watch the trend in this key question in future polls.
The last time Democrats won the White House after two (actually, three) Republican presidential terms, they turned record deficits into surpluses -- which the Republicans promptly turned right back into deficits upon regaining the presidency. This would probably be a good time to mention that Malcolm worked for those Republicans, serving as press secretary to Laura Bush. As a general rule, journalists who worked for the Bushes probably shouldn't snark about Democrats' purported inability to hold the deficit down.
And as the months roll by, the results, added together, indicate the clock is running out on Obama's ability to blame the last administration for all ills; the sense of his ownership of the nation's problems appears to be growing in the American mind.
Now, Malcolm presented a hodge-podge of polling results, which he cherry-picked across multiple polls to find data that looked bad for Democrats. But he didn't include anything in that grab bag of poll numbers that even remotely addressed whether or not "the clock is running out on Obama's ability to blame the last administration."
Maybe that's because this week's polling data shows quite the opposite; the very polls Malcolm cited disprove his assertion. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 72 percent of Americans think Obama inherited the "current economic conditions," while only 14 percent think conditions are a result of his policies. Malcolm cited the poll -- but kept quiet about that result.
And what of the Republicans? The only specific poll number Malcolm mentioned for the GOP is former Vice President Dick Cheney's 26 percent approval rating, which, by the way, Malcolm spun as a positive.
The Republican Party is more unpopular than it has ever been. And it is a sustained unpopularity. According to the New York Times/CBS poll, the last time even 40 percent of America viewed the GOP favorably was in 2006; the last time 45 percent did so was in January of 2005. And the health care reform the GOP opposes has the support of 80 percent of Americans.
That's the polling information the media should be focusing on. Instead, they struggle and strain to find bad news for Obama. He's down to 63 percent approval! He's more popular than his policies! (Except, of course, the public plan.)
Any day now, Matt Lauer will come along to tell us that it is a politically savvy move for the wildly unpopular Republican Party to stand in the way of the wildly popular public plan.