Mainstream media types love two things: (1) a horse race and (2) the false idol of "balance". They see yesterday’s election results as a way to serve both "ideals", by choosing slogans over substance and facts. The front page, above the fold headline in today’s Washington Post reads "Republicans Reclaim Virginia". Gov-elect McDonnell did score a big victory over Creigh Deeds, but the Post headline suggests the whole state has gone red. Not quite. Both U.S. Senators are Democrats, and the Democrats control the state Senate.
The Post headline is part of a pattern: pundits and Beltway insiders are making yesterday’s election into far more than it really is (as Bill Egnor aptly observed yesterday, and in contrast with past off-year elections, which the media downplayed). Another Washington Post headline declares "A Warning to Democrats: It’s Not 2008 Anymore." The New York Post concludes that "The Obama Magic has Faded" and the NY Times writes that "A Year After Dousing, Republican Hopes Rekindled." Fox is ludicrously claiming that the results in NJ and VA spell doom for health care reform.
The exit polls, and other polling, actually tell a different story.
In both New Jersey and Virginia, voters said Obama was not a factor when they cast their votes. President Obama’s approval rating is over 50% in most polls, in the high 50s in some. Approval for the Democratic party is at 43%–not great, but twice as high as the 21% approval rating for the Republican party.
Media coverage is generally ignoring (or providing a very odd perspective on) a couple of interesting congressional elections. In NY-23, the Republican party imploded and a Democrat won in a traditionally Republican district (a Democrat hadn’t been elected in more than a century). A Democrat also won in CA-10, a race overlooked by national media.
With Rep.-Elect Owens’s win in NY-23, Democrats now hold 49 of 51 U.S. House seats in the northeast (New England and New York). That’s a pretty stunning number: the Republican party is dangerously close to losing relevance in this area of the country. Of course, Republican leaders don’t seem to care: Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (a much talked-up presidential contender for 2012) can’t even bring himself to say he’s glad that "moderate" Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is a Republican.
The real political story right now is that the Republican party is in utter disarray and moving to the extreme right. Its leaders include Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and other would-be leaders are fighting to push the party even further to the right. It is a party of obstruction and extremism. It is losing (or has lost) relevance in the northeast, and nationally, has favorable-unfavorable numbers of 21-68%. The party hasn’t had a new idea in 30 years. (After his victory, McDonnell was promising to bring low taxes and fiscal restraint to Virginia–the latter, exactly the wrong prescription for current economic conditions, and each part of the same mantra that Republicans have chanted, but failed to actually live up to, for three decades).
Mainstream media types are comfortably easing into a frame where they can talk horse race–who will win in 2010, is Obama in trouble, what do the elections in NJ and VA mean for Democrats? This feels "balanced" to them. It means, for the rest of us, that we shouldn’t expect to see much substantive coverage of, you know, actual ideas.
If I were a Democratic politician, I might not object to any of this. If Republicans believe their own press, they will get the wrong idea about where they stand politically. Media insiders have a stake in forcing the facts to fit a "balance" frame that presents the Republicans as a viable national party, but reality suggests otherwise. If Republicans think that moving even further to the extreme right is a winning strategy, Howard Dean’s assessment of what happened in NY-23 may apply nationally: he says it "destroyed the Republican party." (I actually don’t see the failure of the Republican party as a good thing, and will write about that soon).