Never before has the political landscape been so hard to read and been so hard to control by the media. While they are used to being the King-Makers in most political climates, that has not been the case this cycle. And let’s hope that trend continues, because they have certainly shown they are not working for the people.
Wrong, wrong, wrong — to the very end, we got it wrong.
Just a couple of weeks ago, political prognosticators in television and print media were describing Indiana as the “most important test” for Donald J. Trump and a “firewall” where Ted Cruz “should do well.” It was one of those states Mr. Cruz could have used to force the likely — if not “guaranteed” — prospect of a contested convention in Cleveland, where, boy, were we in for a spectacular show.
Still more recently — as in Tuesday — the data journalist Nate Silver, who founded the FiveThirtyEight website, gave Hillary Clinton a 90 percent chance of beating Bernie Sanders in Indiana. Mr. Sanders won by a comfortable margin of about five percentage points.
You can continue to blame all the wrong calls this year on new challenges in telephone polling when so many Americans — especially the young — do not have landlines and are therefore hard to track down. Or you can blame the unpredictability of an angry and politically peripatetic electorate.
But in the end, you have to point the finger at national political journalism, which has too often lost sight of its primary directives in this election season: to help readers and viewers make sense of the presidential chaos; to reduce the confusion, not add to it; to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right.
Every election cycle brings questionable news coverage. (Remember the potential president Herman Cain?) But this season has been truly spectacular in its failings. It has been “Dewey Defeats Truman” on a relentless, rolling basis. The mistakes piled up — the bad predictions, the overplaying of every slight development of the horse race to the point of whiplash, the lighthearted treatment of what turned out to be the most serious candidacy in the Republican field. The lessons learned did not.
Wednesday was a day of mea culpas from those — including Nate Cohnof The New York Times — who had declared Mr. Trump’s nomination was most likely a no-go, or who pronounced big inflection points in which the Trump candidacy would go poof, or who played up “pivotal states” that weren’t even close.
The good news is that with Mr. Trump heading for the general election, news organizations will get a second chance to rethink how they approach the race still to come and see how they can avoid the problems of the primaries.
Though it seems as if Mr. Trump’s success came out of the blue, it didn’t. The first signs that something was amiss in the coverage of the Tea Party era actually surfaced in the 2014 midterms. Oh, you broadcast network newscast viewers didn’t know we had important elections with huge consequences for the governance of your country that year? You can be forgiven because the broadcast networks hardly covered them. They didn’t rate. No Trump, or anyone like him. (Boring!)
But here’s what happened. A conservative economics professor and political neophyte named David Brat decided he would challenge the House Republican majority leader Eric Cantor for his Virginia congressional seat. There were few Republicans more powerful than Mr. Cantor, so Mr. Brat’s bid seemed quixotic. Mr. Cantor’s own pollster released numbers days before the election showing a 34-point lead for the congressman, and the closest public poll showed Mr. Cantor up by 13 points.
When Mr. Cantor lost, headlines labeled it an “earthquake” and a “shocker.” And it was, for people who relied solely on polls. It was less so for reporters — like Jake Sherman of Politico, Jenna Portnoy and Robert Costa of The Washington Post and the staff at Breitbart News — who went to Virginia, and talking to actual humans, picked up on the potential trouble for Mr. Cantor.
Of course, the data journalism at FiveThirtyEight, The Upshot at The Times and others like them can guide readers by putting races in perspective and establishing valuable new ways to assess politics. But the lesson in Virginia, as the Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi wrote at the time, was that nothing exceeds the value of shoe-leather reporting, given that politics is an essentially human endeavor and therefore can defy prediction and reason.
Yet when Mr. Trump showed up on the scene, it was as if that had never happened. To be fair, given Mr. Trump’s reality television background, there was some cause to suspect that his presidential announcement last summer signaled that his campaign would be part “performance art” and that there was the possibility of a free fall, as McKay Coppins of BuzzFeed wrote.
It was another thing to declare, as The Huffington Post did, that coverage of his campaign could be relegated to the entertainment section (and to add a disclaimer to articles about him) and still another to give Mr. Trump a “2 percent” chance at the nomination despite strong polls in his favor, as FiveThirtyEight did six months before the first votes were cast. Predictions that far out can be viewed as being all in good fun. But in Mr. Trump’s case, they also arguably sapped the journalistic will to scour his record as aggressively as those of his supposedly more serious rivals. In other words, predictions can have consequences.
Yet when things swung around for Mr. Trump, they sometimes went too far the other way, so that as he approached the Iowa caucuses with a head of steam, much of the reporting assumed that Mr. Trump was on the verge of winning there. But once again the more accurate picture emerged from on-the-ground reporting like that of Trip Gabriel of The Times, who found that organizational problems were undercutting Mr. Trump’s polling strength. It seemed prescient when Mr. Trump lost.
The problems weren’t at all only due to the reliance on data. Don’t forget those moments that were supposed to have augured Mr. Trump’s collapse: the certainty that once the race narrowed to two or three candidates, Mr. Trump would be through, and what at one point became the likelihood of a contested convention.
As Mr. Silver wrote on FiveThirtyEight on Wednesday, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances that made the Trump story hard to call. Mr. Trump has rendered useless the traditional rule books of American politics.
That’s all the more reason in the coming months to be as sharply focused on the data we don’t have as we are on the data we do have (and maybe watching out for making any big predictions about the fall based on the polling of today). But a good place to start would be to get a good night’s sleep, and then talk to some voters.
Correction: May 5, 2016
An earlier version of this column misstated the banner headline in The Chicago Daily Tribune that wrongly reported Gov. Thomas Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election. It was “Dewey Defeats Truman,” not “Dewey Beats Truman.”