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American Journalism Review
Not Over Yet  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2008

Not Over Yet   

Online Exclusive » But you wouldn’t know that from much of the coverage of the presidential campaign.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Let's hope all these pollsters know what they're doing.

Otherwise, journalism is in for a very bad hangover.

The tone of the coverage of the presidential campaign is certainly understandable. But it's also unsettling.

The polls strongly suggest that the Democrats are in for a very good day next Tuesday. Barack Obama is comfortably ahead of John McCain in the national tally. Obama is also ahead in many key swing states and even in some red states. He's playing offense, McCain is playing defense.

Polls also indicate that the Democrats are likely to increase their margins over the Republicans in the Senate and House by significant margins.

The result is coverage that basically says this contest is all but over.

There are stories about what went wrong in the McCain campaign, about Sarah Palin's prospects for securing the GOP nomination in 2012, about whether the "landslide" will produce dominant majorities for the Democrats.

Now, there are perfectly good reasons for all of this. The objective conditions are bad for Republicans: a tanking economy and the widespread anxiety that goes with it, a hugely unpopular Republican president, a huge edge in money for Obama. The Obama campaign often seems like a smoothly running juggernaut, the McCain campaign not so much. Not to mention all of the ugly infighting and recriminations between the McCain and Palin camps.

And the polls, the ubiquitous polls, reinforce all of that, big time.

So what's a journalist to do? You can't ignore it. One side seems way up, the other way down.

And yet, it's important to remember that polls are just polls. They are not predictive; they are only snapshots of reality at a specific moment. They can change quickly.

I realize it's unlikely they will this time. For a candidate so far behind so close to Election Day to turn things around would be shocking.

Yet shocks do happen. Truman did defeat Dewey, I'm told, the Chicago Tribune to the contrary.

And you don't have to go back to the dreaded time before Twitter, iPhones and Scarlett Johannson to find instances where the conventional wisdom was utterly wrong. I remember vividly when Hillary Clinton had a lock on the nomination, when John McCain was toast in the Republican primary, when Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani were formidable forces, when Obama was going to seal the deal in New Hampshire.

So do I expect a "stunning reversal" next week? Do I think we'll soon be saying "President McCain"? Nope. But I've been wrong before. And the media should remember that they have, too.

Sometimes a little caution isn't such a bad idea. As the great Lenny Kravitz once sang, "It ain't over, baby, til it's over."

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