Portraying an Electoral Victory

Last week, the AP’s Scott Bauer reported on a recent study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s NewsLab that tracked evening news broadcasts on 36 stations in nine Midwestern television markets between September 7 and October 6. The study found that the news casts aired a total 1,629 election stories, but that each station averaged only 36 seconds per broadcast in dealing with the midterm elections specifically.

The study also found that the news broadcasts did about three times as many stories on campaign strategy as on “substantive issues.” Only 23 percent of the stations’ election stories were devoted to um, issues, and the only stories that received less air time according to the study’s findings, were—unsurprisingly—those concerning foreign policy, which garnered 23 seconds of coverage. (For reasons we do not profess to understand, unintentional injury coverage clocked in at a mere 11 seconds per broadcast. Someone get on that right away.)

At the same time, the very dependable and always useful (for those of us who can’t stand to watch the broadcast) Tyndall Report finds that for the week of October 9 through 13, the national network newscasts spent a full 13 minutes talking about Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s sex scandal, and a paltry six minutes “previewing” the pivotal elections. That’s a full minute less than the coverage granted to a freak snowstorm that hit Buffalo, New York, late last week.

Still, this is the obvious problem with election coverage, the kind of problem that dominates goo-goo conferences at think tanks like the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute, but leaves us open to questions that nag at even the blue-chip coverage of American politics. I am becoming something of a broken record on this topic, but ever since I read Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy, by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, followed by readings of Tom Edsall’s 1991 masterpiece, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics, and his current good-but-not a-masterpiece Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, it strikes me that mainstream broadcast coverage is ever more misleading and ignorant of the fundamentals that shape our political system.

Issues and national poll numbers turn out to matter barely at all in an off-year election when congressional districts have been hacked and carved up into obscene shapes in order to ensure a majority for one side, coupled with tremendous amounts of cash that can either depress or increase turnout, whatever is needed. The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeanne Cummings does not deal with the issue of gerrymandering, but her reporting on Republican Party election-year spending (subscription required) gives reason for hope that mainstream journalism can sometimes tackle complex election issues. She noted on Wednesday that while in many races Republicans hold a monetary advantage (and some Democrats have hurt themselves by spending wildly early in their races), throwing money at the electorate might not determine this year’s election.

A day earlier, Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Zachary A. Goldfarb, writing in The Washington Post, came to much the same conclusion. “Democrats spent more heavily over the summer and early autumn than their Republican rivals in pivotal House districts, leaving themselves at a disadvantage of more than 2 to 1 in money on hand,” the two reporters concluded. “GOP candidates hold an average cash advantage of $450,000 in 25 of the most competitive districts.”

But the real unreported issues relate to the structural problems that interfere with Americans getting what they want from their elections. Take the 2004 example. As Pierson and Hacker observe:

“If Bush had received the exact same vote share in 2004 that he received in 2000 (that is, 48 percent), he still would have managed to win in 239 of the nation’s 435 House districts—or almost 55 percent. He actually won 255 districts in 2004, or almost 59 percent, while winning around 51 percent of the vote (slightly higher if the calculation excludes Ralph Nader’s one percent). In other words, House districts are now drawn so that an evenly divided country can produce surprisingly lopsided GOP victories. Indeed, the Republicans gained seats in the House in 2004 only because of Tom DeLay’s redistricting scheme in Texas.”

And in the Senate, where the spread of voters across states with relatively small populations (not gerrymandering) is the issue, the disjunction between desire and results is even clearer. “Democrats have actually won two-and-a-half million more votes than Republicans,” Pierson and Hacker write. “Yet they now hold only 44 seats in that 100-person chamber because Republicans dominate the less populous states that are so heavily over-represented in the Senate. As The New Yorker’s democratically-obsessed Hendrik Hertzberg notes, “If one treats each senator as representing half that state’s population, than the Senate’s 55 Republicans currently represent 131 million people, while the 44 Democrats represent 161 million.”

So take your polls with a grain of salt and perhaps a pint of lager. Americans may be fed up with Congress and the current direction of the country, but until they are willing to address the structural problems with their electoral system, the more things change, alas, the more they will likely stay the same.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/