GOP: Media wrong again

March 10, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon

WASHINGTON -- The day after the New Hampshire primary, Washington insiders and political junkies coast-to-coast thought they had experienced a seismic event.

Flushed with excitement, the wise guys convinced themselves that they had a Big Story. The plot line went like this: By finishing second in New Hampshire to Patrick J. Buchanan, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has been dealt a mortal blow, not only to his front-runner status, but to his very chances at winning the presidency.

Bob Beckel, who co-managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign, spoke on network television about a brokered Republican convention in San Diego. Fred Barnes, a respected conservative journalist, added that if Mr. Buchanan were denied the nomination it would somehow be done nefariously -- and suggested Mr. Buchanan might run as a third-party candidate under the banner of Ross Perot's party.

Technically, both of those things are still possible, but here is a far more likely scenario:

Bob Dole will keep winning primaries. He will select a running mate who bestirs the imaginations of the press, if not of the electorate. Mr. Dole will be nominated on the first ballot in San Diego. The convention floor will be a sea of hoopla, hype, and brass bands. Mr. Dole will run a competitive race against President Clinton that will be decided in October or November.

There's more:

Whole forests will be cut down to provide the newsprint for insider articles on the candidates' advisers, ads, speeches, missteps, war records, wives and private lives. But the outcome of the election is unlikely to hinge on those factors.

Instead, it will be decided on issues of a sweeping scope: namely the state of the economy, whether the nation is at peace or at war -- and whether Americans feel secure about themselves and confident in the person they are about the choose to lead them.

How, you ask, can anyone predict the future with such certainty? The answer is, no one can. But there is a wonderful continuity to American politics, and the answers to the present are usually found in our recent past.

Strangely, the people who ought to know this lesson the most -- the political professionals and media who cover politics for a living -- are those who heed it the least. One reason is an over-reliance on public opinion polls at the expense of history -- or even common sense. Another is a desire to be at the center of something exciting, even if it has to be manufactured.

"People love drama, people love a horse race," says Lynn Cutler, a longtime Democratic Party official. "Remember, when Jesse Jackson won in Michigan in 1988. Oh, the panic! The frenzy!"

The voting public, by contrast, generally demonstrates a kind of institutional wisdom about the electoral process. It doesn't get too excited too early or too often, and generally votes for the candidate who has the best organization, the support of the party regulars, a sufficient war chest -- and who exhibits that elusive trait of being "presidential."

"Everybody likes surprises," says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. "But usually, there aren't surprises. The steady horse wins."

Nevertheless, every four years, the press and the political community seem to make the same two mistakes. They become obsessed with polls, and they overreact to the early primaries. Those twin fixations result in the front-runner's being built up too high. And when he momentarily stumbles -- as they all do -- they are too quick to turn on him.

In 1980, a prominent network correspondent delivered Ronald Reagan's "political obituary" after Mr. Reagan lost the Iowa caucuses.

Four years later, the New York Times led its front page the day of the New Hampshire primary with an article that stated flatly that no challenger to Walter F. Mondale had even emerged. Mr. Mondale lost New Hampshire to Gary Hart that very day.

Then, the political establishment reversed field. Winning the nomination without New Hampshire was a Herculian feat, they said. Actually, four others had done it before. Mr. Mondale was on his way to being the fifth.

But Gary Hart didn't go quickly, and two political reporters for Knight-Ridder Newspapers confidently predicted a brokered convention that year. I remember this because I was one of them.

Eight years later, in 1992, dozens of well-paid pundits literally used the word "dead" to describe Mr. Clinton when he stumbled prior to New Hampshire.

As late as June of that year, officials with the Democratic National Committee were worrying aloud in on-the-record interviews that Bill Clinton would finish such a dismal third behind George Bush and Ross Perot that the Democratic Party would be de-certified by the Federal Election Commission -- and lose matching funds for the 1996 race.

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