Posted by: Randy Allgaier | January 12, 2008

The Punditry needs to take a Valium: The story isn’t the Polls! The story is that an African American and a Woman are leading Presidential candidates!

Watching the frenzy of activity among pundits, network news anchors, reporters and all other commentators in all media- print, video and internet – they need to mix a martini and/or pop a valium (in Chris Matthews’ case I propose definitely a double martini and 20 mg of valium).

This is the problem with 24 hour news and the need to fill up airspace with bloviating talking heads. Everything from Hillary’s tears to Barak’s smile are endless sources of stories, conversations and polling data. Can we take a reality check please?

The conservatives have often referred to a group they dislike as the “chattering class”. The term “chattering class” is a term often used in the media and by conservative political commentators to refer to a politically active, socially concerned and highly educated elite section of the middle class, especially those with political, media, and academic connections. It is typically applied to persons with (actual or assumed) liberal or leftist leanings.

The term is often used in a derogatory sense, to suggest that those concerned have a soft-left agenda which is unrealistic (“chattering” suggesting both a preoccupation with theory rather than practicality, and a lack of real experience of the problems under discussion), unserious (“He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat.”) and elitist (unconcerned with the beliefs of ordinary people).

I would posit that the left and the right are guilty of being part of this chattering class. They dissect every breathe, grimace, smile, tear, intonation, and body language to take the pulse of the candidate, their candidacy and then have the temerity to translate that into assuming how that will affect the vote of the electorate.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a political junkie with a worse addiction than I. But watching the news over the course of the period of a week pre- Iowa caucus to the days after the New Hampshire primary had me reeling.

Quite frankly, I don’t care if Hillary cried and it doesn’t much matter if the tears were real or manufactured. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania said on “Bill Moyers Journal”- she doubts that unless someone is a trained actor that they would be able to manufacture that emotion. I agree. I guess the one we really need to worry about with tears and emotions is Fred Dalton Thompson- oh excuse me that’s his acting name- I mean, Senator Fred Thompson.

Romney has cried, Reagan cried (but don’t foget he was an actor- albeit not a very good one), Bush I cried, even Bush II has teared up, Bill Clinton bit his lip. Although I chuckled at a part of Maureen Dowd’s column (Dowd and Frank Ricah are my favorite reads of the week) where she reported a comment from one of her colleagues: “That crying really seemed genuine. I’ll bet she spent hours thinking about it beforehand.” Would we be having this conversation if Hillary was a man?

Shouldn’t the punditry be more focused on the issues rather than the emotions? I have seen that clip of Hillary crying so many times I could probably recite it myself. Shouldn’t they be reporting on the substance of the debates rather than the style?

On Moyers’ show Jamieson mentioned that the media have gone from looking at politics as pugilistic sport in the boxing ring to a death match in the Coliseum. The analogies are no longer- “he scored a knockout” or “wow that was a one two punch”. But rather the current analogies are “she tore his head off”, “the epitaph is written” and “it’s a death match”. Politics has been a blood sport since ancient Greece- but I didn’t think it was an organized execution.

The media have become obsessed with predicting the elections that when those predictions are wrong- they wring their hands and the story becomes the polls rather than the election.

In fairness when talking about Iowa, it was barely mentioned that former Senator John Edwards also “beat” Hillary unless the issue was pressed by either Senator Edwards or his wife Elizabeth. The story was about Senators Obama and Clinton only. It was clear in an interview with Chris Matthews that Elizabeth Edwards was more than miffed about all the attention on the third place caucus candidate and not the second place; rightfully so.

Polling is important. I get annoyed at politicians that say that they don’t pay any attention to the polls whatsoever. Excuse me? Shouldn’t you be somewhat concerned about the feelings, thoughts and concerns of the American people? Nonpartisan polling is the only way to gauge those things in a country of 300 million people. Polling has its place. It is one item of data that should be analyzed when crafting public policy, but it is only one item of data not all of the data that should be examined for thoughtful policy development.

Using polling data for political pandering is reprehensible. Vetting every word of a political speech in front of a focus group has taken the grand tradition of oratory out of our public debate. Policy should not be formed on polling data alone. We are after all a Republic and our elected officials are duty bound to listen to our views and to balance that with other issues and their own expertise and experience.

Using polling to “call an election” after less than 10% of precincts report in is heinous. Hand wringing when that polling is wrong- is absurd. The American people have an uncanny way- on occasion- especially in places notoriously cranky and stubborn as New Hampshire (I love that Yankee spirit) of telling the media that we, the people, will be deciding this election, not them.

Now mind you – I love watching Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann but on the eve of the New Hampshire primary you would have thought that Matthews was going to have a coronary because of the polling being so off. Olbermann in his usual dry witted way just enjoyed Matthews’ histrionics. But it was the “elder statesman” of NBC journalism, Tom Brokaw, that had to remind everyone to take a deep breath and to remember that this is an election that the American people decide.

Analyzing the mistakes in the polling is going to be important but it shouldn’t be the story. If there is a “so-called” Bradley effect, where people told pollsters they voted for the African American former LA Mayor Tom Bradley in the California gubernatorial race where George Deukmejian won because they didn’t want to admit that they wouldn’t vote for an African American candidate, we need to know that. It will tell us where we are as a nation in our honesty about racial issues.

I am a fan of the processes in Iowa and New Hampshire because with maybe the exception of South Carolina they are the only opportunities that voters have the chance to be up close and personal with the candidates- it is true retail politics. This is vital in an age where media sound bites control most of the political debate. Seeing an Iowa caucus in action is like looking at democracy as envisioned by our founders. Sure the demographics of Iowa and New Hampshire are skewed. As P.J. O’Rourke said last night on “Real Time with Bill Maher”, there is no prejudice in New Hampshire because we have never had much experience with people who don’t look like us- i.e., WASP. While that line is funny it isn’t 100% true, although Iowa and New Hampshire are each incredibly white states. After these states of retail politics the campaigns become so national in scope that they only become media campaigns. That retail politics is vital to our process.

But we must remember to that the primary process isn’t over until someone has enough delegate votes to win their party’s nomination is 2,025 in the Democratic Party and in the Republican Party it is 1,191. So far on the Democratic side Senator Clinton has garnered 24 delegates, Senator Obama has 25, and former Senator Edwards has 18. All are a long way from the needed 2,025. The same is true on the Republican side.

Before any coronations of Senator Obama, Senator Clinton, Governor Romney or Senator McCain- it might be nice to see more than a miniscule number of delegates counted.

Hear ye, hear ye- A message to the punditry. The story isn’t about your polling and predictions being wrong- although we know that your egos are unable to acknowledge this- the real story is more earth shattering. An African American man and a woman are front running Presidential candidates. WOW! Neither are events I would have expected in my lifetime, let alone in the same year.  Let’s see your report on that for a news cycle- Okay?


  1. You’re right about the chattering class. They fill the airwaves with crap about which absolutely no one cares.

    Tears – real or fake?

    Floating crosses?

    Did Clinton tip the waitress?

    Was Obama’s estranged father a Muslim?

    What’s the going rate on a good haircut?

    Sadly, this stuff isn’t completely new — How do you spell “potato”?

  2. It was understood in 2000 that Hillary would run in 2008. It took very little punditry to form that expectation. She had both her husband’s political organization and his political capital to back her.

    This has had a distorting effect on the field of candidates for this year in particular. In a more normal year, Edwards would be the Democratic front runner.

    It’s hard to maintain a stable democratic process when there’s a crown prince.

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