Why were (relatively) few people actually confident Obama would win?

There’s been a lot of talk this week about how horribly wrong the conservative press got their election predictions, picking Romney  to win in a landslide despite no polls supporting this idea.  They have been roundly criticized for attacking Nate Silver, who had the idea to go look at the polls and predict how people would vote based on them.  (Personally, I think my method is even better: I predicted who would win just by looking at the candidates.  But that’s an aside.)

The conservative press–Fox News, Limbaugh, and that crowd–are, of course, a bunch of liars.  I have no doubt about it, and I didn’t even before this election.  It’s so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on. So I won’t.  No, what I want to talk about is the non-Fox mainstream news media’s coverage of the election, especially election night itself.  It was not quite as bad as Fox, but it wasn’t good. It covered everything as a neck-and-neck horse race, and really only reported states as they came in.  (I will admit up front that I did not watch all of it; I went to bed at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, with total confidence of Obama’s victory.)

On my PBS station, I get something called “BBC World News America“.  As you may have guessed, it’s BBC news for Americans.  The difference between this and the regular American news is very striking.  On election night, the BBC did a good job pointing out that if you counted in the electoral votes of the solidly Democratic and Republican states, the President had a sizeable advantage.  Romney was, in short, playing with a handicap.  He was trailing before the competition actually started.

On all the other networks, all they really talk about is the “swing states”. Obviously, these are the most important, but to watch the coverage you would think that the whole affair rested entirely on who won these states.  They didn’t seem to focus so much on the fact that Obama had more margin for error.  It was just a “ooooo, who will win the next state?” sort of show, like a “reality” show of sorts.

Then there were people like David Gregory, who seemed to think he was covering a football game.  He kept talking about Obama’s “defense” and Romney’s “offense”.  That means nothing.  It’s not really that kind of competition.  People vote for and against candidates for lots of reasons.  I mean, the weather can determine the outcome of elections.

All in all, the television political press is pretty lousy, in my opinion.  Fox News is just a Republican P.R. office and the rest of them just like a close race so they can have something exciting to talk about.


  1. I was pretty sure President Obama would be re-elected. Modern statistical formulas have proven to be pretty reliable about predicting patterns and outcomes over the past few years (Nate Silver, the Freakonomics guys, etc). Once the rust-belt states started falling into column O, it was over.

    1. Agreed. I’m not sure why so many people were skeptical. I guess there were some issues with the polls being off in ’04, but in general, I don’t see much reason to doubt the data. And I don’t know how the Republicans got the idea that polls favoring Obama would be “biased”. You could easily argue they favored Republicans, since they might make Obama supporters think they didn’t need to go vote.

  2. It did seem like a no-brainer just in a head-to-head comparison of the two men. One very likable, the other a documented liar. The media just won’t let it be that easy!

    1. The good news, I guess, is that the press doesn’t seem to have influenced the outcome; they just predicted it wrong for the sake of ratings. Maybe I’m too optimistic here, but I think many voters are better at thinking for themselves than they get credit for.

  3. If you look at the head to head total votes in all elections since 1960 the winning percentage is usually around 52 to 48% or closer. Goldwater, Humphrey, Carter and the others that were clobbered in the electoral college were fairly close in popular vote. Gore actually won the popular vote. The news media always claims it’s too close to call to hedge their bets and make it a horse race.

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