At a recent lecture at his alma mater, Georgetown University, former President Clinton aired a complaint previously heard from various press secretaries and communications directors. “If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a story line,” Clinton said. “And then once people settle on the story line, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”
Having practiced journalism—as with golf and so many other things, you never get to perfection—for 30 years, I think Clinton is right, and increasingly so. Journalists continue to face mounting pressure to maximize Web clicks, creating a new pejorative media lexicon, such as the danger of becoming “click whores” by using certain story lines as “click bait”—actions that undoubtedly have a lot of “old-time” journalists rolling in their graves. Too often, shortcuts are made to make a story sexier than the reality actually is.
At the same time, there is value when, if the facts allow it, a journalist creates a narrative that allows readers who have lives and day jobs and are not totally immersed in politics to better understand, within a larger context, what is going on. The trick is to do it without committing the sin Clinton complained about: “to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”
Journalists have to be intellectually honest enough to not cherry-pick facts and arguments that support their story line, especially if there are plenty of other facts and circumstances that contradict it. Indeed, the omission of facts is one of the graver sins that takes place far too often on various cable political shows, as well on as the more ideological blogs and publications. These outlets include what fits into a story line or ideological point of view, ignoring other things that support an alternative conclusion.
A legitimate narrative for the 2014 midterms is that while little is likely to happen in the House because there simply aren’t enough competitive districts and highly vulnerable seats on either side for very many seats to change hands, in the Senate there is a veritable perfect storm of factors that all work to the detriment of Democratic hopes to retain a majority.
First and least important is simple numerical exposure. Democrats have 21 seats up for reelection, Republicans only 15, so Democrats have more places to lose seats and fewer opportunities to gain.
Far more important is the second factor: The map is about as ugly as it can get for Democrats. When one party (Democrats, in this case) has seven seats up in states won by the opposite party (Republicans) in the last presidential election, and the other party has just one such seat (which isn’t in any danger), the first party has a problem. And because six of those seven Democratic seats are in states that Mitt Romney won by 14 points or more—coincidentally the same number of seats that Republicans need to score a net gain— the picture is really ugly. While there are some pivotal Senate contests that are not in states inherently challenging for Democrats (Iowa, Michigan, and, to a certain extent, Colorado being the most obvious examples), there are far more states such as Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia that are particularly problematic for the party. It isn’t until you get to the third tier of seats (Minnesota, Oregon, and Virginia) that you find states that aren’t worse than the national average for Democrats.
After numbers and the map, the third factor to consider is timing. In presidential elections, the electorate looks more or less like the country and is quite diverse. Voters in midterm elections, however, are increasingly older, whiter, more conservative, and more Republican, exacerbating an already difficult situation in 2014. While the presidential-versus-midterm election turnout contrast is not entirely determinative, it is extremely important. In the 2006 midterms, when Democrats scored big, President George W. Bush and the GOP were weighed down heavily by the increasingly controversial Iraq War, changing everything completely.
The fourth and final factor is the mood of the public. With President Obama and his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, both “underwater,” or “upside down” in pollster parlance, the current political environment is not good for Democrats. While most other major national polls, in contrast to the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, aren’t showing Obama at record-low approval ratings, the others peg him not far above that mark. Most show him running a couple of points better than a few months ago, which is no sure sign that Obama has turned a corner; his numbers are still bad, just not quite as bad as last fall or in the dead of the winter. When the political environment gets this bad, sometimes it makes a disproportionate number of independent and swing voters tilt toward the opposite party, sometimes it simply disillusions voters in the president’s party and makes them more likely to stay home on Election Day, and sometimes both of these things happen. Polls indicate this is a real danger in 2014; indeed, polls show Republican voters, particularly conservative ones, who just can’t wait to vote.
Between now and Election Day, there will be lots of “click-worthy” bait to tempt us. A poll number here. A health care enrollment number there. But, as with a sugar high, the buzz will wear off almost as quickly as it comes. Instead, pay more attention to the less sexy but more important fundamentals of 2014: the map and the mood. That is a story line that will remain relevant for the rest of the cycle.
This article appears in the May 6, 2014 edition of NJ Daily as Sticking to a Story Line.