Nobody Much Stumped by 2014 Results

At the end of his annual list of things he got wrong, Dave Weigel makes an important observation about how campaign coverage changed in 2014, using the phenomenon a lot of people think of as showing the persistence of personality-driven Game Change journalism:

As Jonathan Martin put it, “in an era of homogenized, data-driven campaigns, a quirky and unpredictable contest ha[d] emerged in South Dakota.” To some conservatives, the 11th hour media obsessions with South Dakota and with Kansas’s Republican-versus-independent race revealed a bias. The press was trying to avoid the true story of Republican success—wasn’t it?

I don’t think so. The explosion of data journalism has generally strengthened political reporting. More stories begin with data then with anecdotes. The South Dakota and Kansas boomlets began when individual polls showed the races, surprisingly, closing to single digits. Anyone who chose to follow 2014 exclusively through The Upshot or FiveThirtyEight would have started the year assuming that Republicans would take the Senate.

That’s right. I sure did, though I didn’t put it in the form of a prediction because 1998. Now in the end there was some doubt about Republicans taking over the Senate because there were an awful lot of close races, and there was no particular reason to think Republicans would sweep nearly all of them as they did in 1980. But when that happened, I wasn’t terribly surprised, and you shouldn’t have been either if you were paying attention to the many factors that gave Republicans an advantage even if they stumbled around the campaign trail like winos, which some did but others didn’t.

In any event, campaign journalism is being improved if not perfected by the use of data and history, even at outlets (hint: the one whose name starts with a “P”) where they undoubtedly prefer the Game Change model. You’ll always have spinmeisters mixed in with the other journalists, people who barely even pretend to look at empirical evidence, and just keep shouting for their “team.” But we could be in for a presidential cycle with less media BS than we are used to.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.