Patricia Nell Warren

Election Perceptions

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 20, 2008 5:41 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: Nevada primary, news slanting, politics is perception

There's an old saying that "politics is perception." News is about perception, too. Never is this more obvious than when the media are reporting on election results. Anything goes, apparently, in some publications' frenzy to give some push to their hoped-for election results. It's all about electing a President with a groundswell of second-guessing and projections. The Nevada primary gave us a classic case of election perception in the media. I've pored over a number of news reports and this is what I see:

By evening, with 98 percent of Nevada precincts reporting, many of the media were announcing that it was Clinton over Obama by six percentage points. They fanfared a second major victory for Clinton, and her first in the West. But some newspapers did a once-over-lightly, and failed to clarify that Clinton won the popular vote, not the delegate count.

The Nation was one who came close to getting it right. They reported, "Barack Obama may have won the most delegates in Saturday's Nevada Caucus, even though Hillary Clinton bested his statewide turnout by about six points. A source with knowledge of the Nevada Democratic Party's projections told The Nation that under the arcane weighting system, Obama would win 13 national convention delegates and Clinton would win 12 delegates. The state party has not released an official count yet. Barack Obama released an official statement celebrating a delegate victory."

Bloomberg did even better, with a good backgrounder titled "Delegate Dispute." They pointed out that Obama didn't concede, claiming that he won one more delegate than Clinton because of delegate allotments in rural areas. They also pointed out that official DNC delegate selection won't be completed until April. They quoted Clinton's rebuttal of Obama's position, and her statement, "This is about delegates but it's also about what people are voting for and who they think the best president will be.''

In addition, Bloomberg provided the reader with this vital context: "The Democratic candidate needs 2,025 delegates to win the nomination. Clinton, who placed third in the Iowa caucuses and won the New Hampshire primary, has 210 delegates so far, according to a tally by CNN that includes so-called super-delegates, party officials and office holders who are not bound by state voting results. Obama has 123 and Edwards has 52." This means that super-delegates can swing their votes to Obama later and alter the balance between the two candidates' tallies.

But the Boston Globe mentioned the delegate angle only briefly, burying it halfway down the page and dismissing it as a "technical victory." Fox News (online) also buried it halfway down, with this comment: "Clinton captured the popular vote overall, but Obama appeared to edge her out for national convention delegates at stake, taking 13 to her 12. The state's Democratic Party released a statement later saying those delegate counts could change as national convention delegates have not yet been directly awarded."

Media maneuvers around "election perception" can have major impact on election results. A few times in the past, the media projected a win while the polls were still open. As in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson's victory was announced on TV while voters were still lined up to vote out West. In 2000, a handful of broadcast media altered the course of U.S. history when they projected Gore had won Florida while Florida polls were still open. Later they reversed their projection and Gore conceded the race based on this projection. When all the results were in and the confusion became, Gore withdrew his concession. Today the Commission on Federal Election Reform comments that these media mistakes "irretrievably influenced public perceptions of the apparent victor in the election, which then affected the subsequent controversy over the outcome in Florida." (http://www.american.edu/ia/cfer/report/CFER_section7.pdf)

The Nevada case is a little different, because polls were no longer open. But it's still an example of media efforts to shade public perception on who's going to win. With the Clinton organization wanting their bandwagon to speed up, it will be good for them if more news media create a perception of speed. The Obama bandwagon wants momentum too, so they're surely hoping for their own oomph from the media.

I've spent much of my life in the media, with part of it spent as a Reader's Digest editor 1959-1980, and I became fascinated by this "public perception" thing at a young age. In their search for stuff to condense, Digest editors read literally all the other print media in the U.S., from the New York Times to Air Force News and Mother Jones. The job gave me an overview of what all the other publications were shading, and how they were shading it. Bear in mind that this was the Sixties and Seventies -- a tumultuous time and a turning point in our history. I was always amazed at how a baseline event -- the latest doings of the anti-war activists, the latest battle of rhetoric in the Cold War -- could go through the Digest policy machine and come out with a rightie spin on it...whereas the Village Voice policy machine churned it out with a leftie spin. Yet both sides insisted they were reporting "the facts."

Conservatives accused the liberals of slanting the news. Liberals accused conservatives of slanting the news. For twenty years I watched what was going on, and concluded that EVERYBODY slants the news.

Today, as we live in another tumultuous time and approach another turning point in U.S. history, I haven't changed my opinion much about that process. The media game has gotten more complicated, with addition of satellite TV and the Internet (to name just a few factors), and there are some new issues. But the struggle to capture "public perception" is as deadly as ever. You're lucky to find a few media sources that will give you anything like an honest and complete report about what's going on.


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Watching the 00 election returns was the WORST NIGHT OF MY LIFE! We ran out of weed and beer. Not a happy combo!

Bah. The primary election system is an even bigger joke than the general election. Half these problems could be solved by getting rid of the caucus system in states that still use it, putting all the primaries on the same day or having rotating regional primaries, and getting rid of delegates and just have one vote equal one vote.

Bah humbug to the primary elections!

I actually agree with Alex. This whole system is stupid.

What's the point of the caucus? I mean, if they're not really deciding anything but delegates to a state convention where the delegates can flip votes, what does it really gain them? It's just another publicity ploy for both of them to claim a "win."

Put 'em all on the same damn day and stop playing preferences with various parts of the country.

ahh The joy of figurering out the deleagate count.Rememember Iowa John Edwards came in second but ended up with one less delegate thwn Hillary Clinton.CNN has been useing DNC rules to give out RNC results and no one has called them on it. So yes everyone slants the news that has been as old as the first person to start writing newspapers!Oh just to see how it goes come the GOP primary in Florida its winner take all not divide it up by percentage of votes won so if any one tries to show split deleagate count you know there totaly wrong!