January 9, 2008

New Hampshire Teaches National News Media a Lesson

So widespread was the feeling in media and political circles that Barack Obama was about to pair his Iowa victory with a big New Hampshire win that two of the nation’s most respected papers ran headlines all but predicting the triumph.

“Obama Carries Momentum to N.H,” declared the page 1 headline on a Jan. 8 Washington Post story, which mentioned Obama “anticipating a victory” in the first sentence. The front-page headline in the Jan 8. New York Times, above a photo of a pensive-looking Hillary Clinton, read “On Eve of Primary, Clinton’s Campaign Shows Stress.’’

Heading into the Feb. 8 election, most polls and many pundits were projecting a large victory, perhaps in double-digits, for Obama over Clinton—one that could conceivably cripple her campaign. And to the extent there was an 11th hour insider buzz on the Republican side, it was that Mitt Romney seemed to be closing the gap with John McCain.

Yet the conventional wisdom was flattened for a 10-count once the citizens of the “Live Free or Die” state actually cast their ballots. While the polls on the Republican side were accurate and McCain coasted to a reasonably comfortable win, Clinton stunned the political and media establishment with a narrow but decisive victory.

Within minutes, at least some of the pundit buzz turned away from understanding the voters to gazing at the media. “Why were the polls so wrong?” wondered Fox News Channel commentator Nina Easton, speaking for the stunned cable commentariat. “Clinton Victory Makes Fools of Doubters” read the headline atop the Politico.com post-mortem. Nothing captured the sense of the moment better than the Jan. 9 front-page banner headline on The Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts: “New Hampshire shocker”

If the press got the run-up to New Hampshire so wrong, how did they cover the aftermath? What were the leading narratives coming out of the first-in-the-nation primary?

To find out, PEJ examined 90 newspaper headlines, 30 top Google headlines online, coverage on the three main cable news networks and the broadcast network morning shows, and a major political web portal. And one message trumped all others.

• Upsets and comebacks were the dominant theme of the day. Slightly more than half the Jan. 9 newspaper headlines and sub headlines stressed those ideas. “The Night of Comebacks” read the succinct front-page headline on The Bakersfield Californian. The same message was heard loud and clear on the Jan. 9 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America where the primary results were summed up with the words, “The Comeback Kids…a shocker in New Hampshire.”

• The use of the word comeback to describe Clinton seemed obvious since some of the media appeared prepared to write her political obit only 24-hours earlier. But some coverage also noted how McCain had been written off, particularly early in the year when his campaign had been hobbled by money problems and staff turnover. A PEJ study of campaign journalism for the first five months of 2007 found that McCain had received the most negative coverage of any major candidate, with pessimistic stories outpacing positive ones by a 4-1 margin. “The man who was out of it last summer is now the winner of a primary and that will allow him to go forward,” said correspondent Kelly O’Donnell on MSBNC. “At 71, John McCain surges from his summer slump as comeback kid for Republicans,” declared Harry Smith on CBS’s Early Show.

• One theme that emerged in coverage after the Iowa caucus—the election being driven by the forces of populism and change—was supplanted by a more strategic message after the New Hampshire vote. Nearly one-fifth of newspaper headlines and sub headlines hit the idea that the Clinton and McCain victories had turned both primary battles into wide open affairs. “It’s a Horse Race” declared the Rocky Mountain News. “News Hampshire Resets Races” added The Kansas City Star.

• Although there were some clear losers in New Hampshire, most of the coverage emphasized the unlikely triumphs of the winners rather than the problems of the vanquished. Headlines like this one in the Cheyenne Wyoming Tribune-Eagle—“Primary Statements: N.H. Deals Wyoming winner Romney bitter defeat: favored Obama rejected in stunning setback”—were pretty few and far between. The consensus of the commentary was that Obama remains very much alive and that Romney will get at least one more chance to do battle in the Jan. 15 Michigan primary.

To get this snapshot of the first wave of media coverage and commentary coming out of New Hampshire, PEJ monitored election night coverage on the three cable news networks–CNN, the Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. The following morning, on Jan. 9, PEJ looked at coverage on the three broadcast network morning shows—NBC’s Today, ABC’s Good Morning America, and CBS’s Early Show. PEJ also looked at the headlines and sub headlines of U.S. daily papers posted on the Newseum Web site on Jan. 9. In addition, it looked a headlines posted on Google News on the morning of Jan. 9 and 17 stories posted on the Real Clear Politics site that same morning.

The sheer magnitude of the Clinton surprise had much of the media scrambling to make sense of things. Yes, there was the exit poll data that indicated how well Clinton did among women voters, those with incomes under $50,000 and among the elderly. There was evidence that some Independent voters expected to flock to Obama may have instead taken Republican ballots to vote for McCain.

But beyond the numbers, there was an almost desperate search for the dynamic that somehow changed the race. And here the evidence was far more scant than the guessing. Indeed, the prevalence on the air of analysts and talkers—as opposed to reporters who had spent their time with voters—seemed to have reinforced the surprise.

One oft-heard theory is that Clinton humanized herself during that Portsmouth New Hampshire event where she became emotional and teary-eyed while discussing the campaign.

“It’s the tears,” snapped Fox News commentator William Kristol on primary night, searching for an explanation for Clinton’s win. “Women were sorry for her and she won.” On Jan. 9, the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd devoted an entire column, headlined “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” to the episode. Dowd concluded that the display of vulnerability made Clinton “more appealing…particularly to women over 45.”

Another theory that surfaced is that the media’s predictions about an Obama win and the possible end of the Clinton campaign created a backlash among New Hampshire’s famously contrarian voters. A posting on the Nation online theorized that some Democrats simply didn’t want to “feel like they were endorsing this wholesale evisceration of the Clintons.” As the pithy Jan. 9 headline on the Chicago Sun-Times noted, New Hampshire voters essentially said “Not So Fast.”

But one point on which there was less disagreement was condemnation of the press. Though what to do about it was less obvious.

And one of the most striking moments came from one of the older media figures who was widely used Jan. 8. Appearing on MSNBC on election night, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw suggested that the media might want to re-evaluate how they spend time on the air, in blogs and elsewhere.

When MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews lamented all the problems with the New Hampshire polls and said “we’re going to have go back…and figure out the methodology,” Brokaw said, “You know what I think we’re going to have to do?”

“Yes, sir?” responded Matthews.

“Wait for the voters to make their judgment,” Brokaw declared.

“Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot?” wondered Matthews. “We must stay home, I guess.”

“No, no we don’t stay home,” countered Brokaw. “There are reasons to analyze what they’re saying….There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this. But we don’t have to get the in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed. And trying to stampede, in effect, the process.’

As much of the shell-shocked coverage from New Hampshire made clear, the process taught the press a lesson.