Twenty years ago on election night, the television networks
stepped into a brief, mini-scandal by declaring Ronald Reagan the
winner of the 1980 election a couple of hours before the polls had
closed on the West Coast. The call, though accurate, was premature
and therefore unseemly, said critics (many of whom were California
This year the networks are off the hook. One newspaper has beaten
them all by making its election night call more than five months
before the first votes are even cast.
a May 26 front-page article, The Washington Post’s Robert
Kaiser declared that Al Gore has already sewn up victory, "by making
the clever decision to run in the midst of an economic boom, and by
choosing to succeed a popular incumbent." Kaiser wrote that six
political scientists "who have honed and polished the art of
election forecasting... are saying Gore will win 53 to 60 percent of
the [two-party] vote."
The theory is that the economic health of the nation overrides
most of the short-term static of a campaign; in a boom such as we’re
enjoying now, the candidate of the incumbent party -- Al Gore --
should be a sure winner.
The story was unusually timed, appearing as dozens of national
polls show a consistent, though not overwhelming, lead for George W.
Bush. As the political newspaper of record, the Post probably
knew that the notion of a preordained Gore victory would get a lot
of media play if placed on its front page.
Sure enough, the story seemingly popped up everywhere over the
long Memorial Day weekend; variations of it appeared in the
Orlando Sentinel, Cincinnati Enquirer, Dallas Morning
News, Seattle Times, Slate magazine, and the
Times of London. CNN’s Frank Sesno and Bill Schneider bantered
about it on the May 26 edition of Inside Politics, while
NBC’s Tim Russert brought it up on Sunday’s Meet the Press.
If the candidate’s low polling numbers have brought down the
troops’ morale at Gore’s HQ, the news seemed well-timed to boost
spirits. The Associated Press reported that the Gore campaign was
"giddily" and "gleefully" promoting the Post story.
political scientists seem to be on to something," commented Gore’s
spokesman, Chris Lehane.
In a nutshell, the Post reported that several political
scientists have constructed models based on past election results.
The key variables are the state of the economy, the incumbent
President’s approval ratings, and voters’ views of each party’s
ability to promote peace and prosperity. By plugging the current
values of each variable into the modeler’s equation, one discovers
the share of the two-party vote that the incumbent’s party should
win. The better the economy, the better the political prospects for
the team currently holding the White House.
This isn’t really a bombshell; the health of the economy has
traditionally been a key issue in presidential elections. Kaiser,
though, trumpeted the news as if he had discovered some sort of
amazing stock-picking system. "Although Bush’s pollster finds fault
with these forecasts," he wrote, "these academic prognosticators
have a startlingly good record predicting election results months in
"If these models are right -- and in fairness to their cautious
authors, none seems ready to bet his pension on his prediction --
Gore’s biggest advantages are the popularity of the president and
the continuing economic boom," Kaiser enthusiastically added.
What Kaiser didn’t tell readers was that the economic models he’s
now touting flopped eight years ago -- and one reason may have been
biased coverage by the national media.
Back in 1992, in an article prepared for the Washington Post’s
Sunday Outlook section, reporter Richard Morin wrote about the same
researchers and models that Kaiser featured. "While there is
considerable quibbling over the estimated size of the Bush win, the
forecasting fraternity seems virtually unanimous in the belief that
it’s four more years in the White House for the Republicans," Morin
Six months later, President George Bush led the GOP to its lowest
share of the presidential popular vote since 1912.
This is not to suggest that the economic models are unreliable,
only that they are not infallible. After all, the modelers emphasize
real-world economic data, but voters are apt to base their decisions
as much on their perceptions of the economy as on its statistical
Back in 1992, the news media -- particularly television news --
painted a consistently negative portrait of the national economy all
year. A research project I directed that year at the Center for
Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) found more than 90 percent of all
comments broadcast on the evening news during the ten months
preceding the election cast the state of the economy in negative
terms. That "uninterrupted stream of negative press and commentary,"
as the Roper Center’s Everett Ladd termed it, affected public
opinion; by Election Day, 77 percent of the public were telling
pollsters that the economic situation was bleak.
The problem was that things weren’t as bad as the networks were
telling voters. The recession actually spanned from the summer of
1990 through the spring of 1991, but garnered relatively little
coverage because the national media were following the crisis with
Iraq. The networks didn’t give audiences heavy doses of economic
news until November 1991 -- months after the recession had actually
ended, but right at the start of the next political season.
Once they seized upon the economic story, reporters failed to
offer any semblance of balance. On World News Tonight January
13, 1992, for example, ABC’s Peter Jennings referred to New
Hampshire as an "economic misery zone," while reporter Jim Wooten
noted that in most years the first primary state doesn’t resemble
the rest of America. "But," said Wooten, "this time around, it does:
the economy is a wreck....for many people, the word ‘recession’
doesn’t begin to tell the story." The networks kept up the dismal
drumbeat all year, while steadily increasing growth rates --which
reached an annualized rate of nearly 4% by the third quarter -- were
Ironically, the negative portrayals of the economy ceased
immediately after Clinton’s election in November. According to the
CMPA study, quotes about the nation’s economic health averaged more
than 60 percent positive for the remainder of 1992, compared with
more than 90 percent negative prior to the election.
A few reporters expressed regret about the imbalanced economic
coverage after the ‘92 election. "If you look at the statistics, the
economy didn’t stink as badly as we allowed Clinton to say it did,"
said Dan Thomasson, then with the Scripps Howard News Service. "We
didn’t hold Clinton accountable and we should have."
So, what about this election? Will voters give Bill Clinton and
Al Gore the credit for the booming economy?
Perhaps not, especially if the media give equal time to free
market economists such as Lawrence Kudlow and Stephen Moore. They
jointly wrote an op-ed which appeared in the Washington Times
on February 1, the same day that the economic expansion — then 107
months old -- officially became the longest in U.S. history. (Count
backwards: this historic expansion started long before President
Bush left office). In their column, Kudlow and Moore made the case
that Reaganomics has shaped today’s economy much more than Clinton’s
"While the chattering heads in Washington are claiming that this
expansion is sweet vindication for Clintonomics, they are wrong.
Dead wrong," they declared. "America’s economic turnaround started
in the early 1980s, a decade before Bill Clinton arrived in
"The lesson of the last 20 years, hopefully learned for all
times, is that when American entrepreneurs and workers are liberated
from heavy-handed and intrusive fiscal policies, punitive tax rates,
and destabilizing monetary policies, the U.S. economy’s growth
potential is almost limitless. If Washington officials can resist
four prosperity killers -- high inflation, big tax hikes,
re-regulation and trade protectionism -- then more decades of
technology-led growth is clearly possible," argued
Moore and Kudlow.
If in Campaign 2000 the media present this free market message to
voters in an unbiased fashion, that wouldn’t necessarily doom Gore’s
chances. It would mean, however, that he might not win just on the
basis of yesterday’s prosperity. Instead, Gore and Bush would each
have to make the case that they would do the most to keep government
on the sidelines and enhance the potential of the free economy for
It might make things a bit less predictable come November, but
isn’t that why we have elections?