Over at Post Partisan, I argue that Wisconsin — assuming the state senate result holds up and Democrats have gained a majority there — is a mixed result.

That’s not what you’re going to get from the coverage, however, which played it as a sweeping Republican landslide.

So how did it happen?

First, the press has a major bias in favor of covering executive over legislative elections.

Second, the state senate result happened really late at night (and, again, isn’t quite definite even now and may not be for some time), while the gubernatorial race was called during prime time.

Third, I’m fairly sure that the way the exit polls and the count interacted helped. Suppose that it worked the opposite way…suppose the exit polls had been accurate, showing Scott Walker with a solid lead, but not quite enough to call it. The cable networks would have basically had a dud story to begin with: Walker expected to win, Walker probably will win. Then, suppose that the voters were counted in the Democratic precincts first, so that Democrat Tom Barrett held a narrow lead for most of the night, with Walker moving ahead late, and no network call until after midnight eastern time. The headline still would have been a Walker win, but my guess is it would have been perceived as very close. Instead, after an initial exit poll call that teased everyone that it would be a tight race, the count for most of the night had Walker up by about 20 points, leading pundits to start interpreting a major landslide that, it turned out, never happened. Had the same votes come in a different sequence, we might have been hearing all night about how Walker was badly harmed by his actions in office, even though he was likely to survive.

The funny thing is that all those biases and more were working the other way in a big Republican win yesterday in CA 31. In that one, Democrats failed to coordinate on a candidate, and therefore lost a chance at a very competitive House seat — both candidates on the November ballot will be Republicans. In that, Republicans didn’t get a story because the count was very slow (and on the west coast to begin with), and because the whole top-two ballot thing is confusing, and again because the press underplays legislative elections.

I’m not blaming the press for erring in most of this — I’d like more focus on Congressional elections, but I don’t expect them to wait until all the votes are in before they start pontificating on the meaning of things. And it’s not as if the initial spin usually makes any difference, anyway (see the PP piece for how spin might be important in this one, though). Bottom line, however, is that there are real and important biases in how the press reports elections, and quite a few of them showed up in last night’s coverage.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.