With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.

From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.

Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”

Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.

Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.

We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.

In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

(Incidentally, Patterson has a new book out called “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” Spoiler alert: He thinks the answer is “yes.”)

Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.

The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see thisthis and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.

“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”

And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.

Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.

What would better coverage look like?

First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.

Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.

Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.

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