The press and the polls botched 2020. What are we supposed to make of that?
As of the time of this writing, we don’t know whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden won the election. But we do know that the media lost it.
The winner of the 2020 Presidential election remains unclear. But one thing became clear very quickly after the polls closed on election night: the election that that pollsters, pundits, and the press spent months forecasting was a mirage.
It simply did not happen, and it is the second time in twice as many years that the tone, assertions, and projections of the American political commentariat were exposed as deeply out of touch with the American electorate.
Remember all those pre-election pieces applauding the Biden campaign’s “epic blandness” and “bunker strategy?” Even if Biden does ultimately end up the winner, the closeness of this race has made it abundantly clear that those takes were just nonsense — thinly veiled media attempts to manufacture and maintain the mirage of an impending Biden victory of supposedly historic proportions. They were not reporting, they were not analysis; they were a lie at worst, a total whiff at best.
The FiveThirtyEight forecast for the Presidential race gave Biden an 89% chance of winning based at least in part on polls that had Biden up as much as 6 points in Florida — a state that, at the time of this writing, Biden is losing by more than 3%. Similar polls had Biden up 8, 11, and a completely insane 17 points in Wisconsin, where he currently leads Trump by less than a point. Biden was supposed to win Michigan by between 4 and 5 points; if he does indeed win it when all is said and done, it looks like it’ll be by a very slim .2%.
Going into the election, the Democrats reportedly had a 75% chance of taking the U.S. Senate. That almost certainly will not happen. In Maine, every poll — every single one — had incumbent Sen. Susan Collins trailing challenger Sarah Gideon, but Collins won the race by over 7 points. In North Carolina, polling showed that Cal Cunningham was the consistent favorite over Sen. Thom Tillis…and at the time of this writing Tillis leads by Cunningham by a just under a hundred thousand votes.
These thwarted projections aren’t mere close misses. They are massive failures.
Admittedly, I used to take a degree of puckish delight in criticizing the press. I’ve dinged the media for “liberal groupthink, inherent political bias, or abject incompetence” and argued that “the Democrats’ strategy relies on the media covering for them.” Indeed, it’s clear to me that the mainstream press’s wild ideological imbalance and self-admitted pressure to pander to audiences play a role in distorting their coverage.
But I take no pleasure in lambasting the press’s failures in covering 2020, because they are so flagrant, so ridiculous, and so consistent that I don’t know what we’re supposed to make of them anymore.
Maybe they’re straight-up mistakes, maybe they’re something more nefarious — an expression of bias, an attempt, deliberate or otherwise, to thumb the scales. Either way, they’re too big to ignore.
You might remember that we’ve been here before. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the press was roundly criticized for missing the political rise of Donald Trump. And though it’s been somewhat memory-holed by now, it’s important to note that at least some media personalities and organizations did indeed make an effort to reflect on their shortcomings and entertain the notion that perhaps some meaningful introspection was in order.
NPR’s David Folkenflik did not mince words in his analysis:
The nation’s journalists like to think of themselves as people who hold the powerful accountable, who are skeptical rather than cynical, constructive rather than carping, institutionally adversarial but not personally opposed. I don’t think that’s how the public thinks about the media. Not at all. The media have come off as petty, grasping and out of touch, all part of the great establishment party from which many Trump voters felt excluded.
In a similarly clear-eyed post-mortem called “There Really Was a Liberal Media Bubble,” Nate Silver diagnosed the factors that prevented many newsrooms from providing voters with a more accurate picture of the election and prescribed relatively modest solutions:
…Journalists should recalibrate themselves to be more skeptical of the consensus of their peers. That’s because a position that seems to have deep backing from the evidence may really just be a reflection from the echo chamber. You should be looking toward how much evidence there is for a particular position as opposed to how many people hold that position: Having 20 independent pieces of evidence that mostly point in the same direction might indeed reflect a powerful consensus, while having 20 like-minded people citing the same warmed-over evidence is much less powerful. Obviously this can be taken too far and in most fields, it’s foolish (and annoying) to constantly doubt the market or consensus view. But in a case like politics where the conventional wisdom can congeal so quickly — and yet has so often been wrong — a certain amount of contrarianism can go a long way.
Others made more concrete recommendations, like relocating offices out of New York and Washington or deliberately hiring more conservative reporters in order to foster more ideologically diverse news rooms. Pretty much none of those ideas manifested, but nonetheless: credit where it’s due, they tried.
Still in the shadow of the 2016 election, I wrote that “the longer the press abdicates its responsibilities to our democracy and continues to showboat, lecture and preen, the longer their journey back to relevance and respect will grow.”
The journey must continue, it seems, because if last night proved anything, it proved that Silver, Folkenflik, and others’ criticisms and suggestions fell on deaf ears.
As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Do they really expect voters and news-watchers not to notice the massive gulf between the press’s projections and reality? What are 330 million Americans supposed to do with the self-evident fact that the industries responsible for accurately informing the American conversation have twice now exposed themselves as utterly incapable of doing so? How can Americans’ crumbling faith in our institutions be rebuilt if our institutions routinely fail with such spectacular aplomb? How can it be the case that entire industries — not a few polls or a few reporters here and there, but the majority of the news media and polling industry — have so publicly failed in the exact same way, twice?
I genuinely don’t know. I wish I did. I don’t know how we can have a healthy political discussion in this country if the industries tasked with fostering it are completely broken. Today, partisans on both sides of the political spectrum think that their political opponents live in a fantasy land, but it’s hard to know what’s real and that’s fantasy when the very organizations tasked with reporting on reality instead manufacture fantasy and try to pass it off reality for months on end.
Because that’s what happened here. Joe Biden was never up 17 points in Wisconsin. Given the margin, he probably was never up more than 2 or 3 points, max. The Democrats were never going to flip Texas or Iowa. There was never going to be a “Biden Blowout,” and so all time spent arguing about court packing and granting Puerto Rico and DC statehood was time wasted; prospective liberal wish-casting based on faulty information puffed up by a blinkered yet somehow ever-confident news media.
If you were to simply take the polls and the press at their word, you’d never know.
What are we supposed to make of that?