After Ronald Reagan’s meandering performance in his initial 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, the political press corps responded with the joyous discovery that there was indeed a horse race. A front-page New York Times story by Howell Raines was headlined, “Chance of Revival Seen for Mondale After TV Debate.” Reagan went on to carry 49 states, while Mondale spent the entire fall campaign trailing by double-digit margins in the Gallup poll. But the incident illustrates the biggest built-in bias in mainstream media coverage of politics: a vested interest in creating campaign drama.
This tendency has only grown since the Reagan era. In 2012, at the end of an unusually stable campaign in which polls foretold Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, Tim Murphy in Mother Jones identified 68 separate events that had been breathlessly described as “game changers.” This year, political journalists have found that the surest way to concoct campaign drama is to exploit Democrats’ fears that, once again, Donald Trump will defy the polls and the projections.
The polls seem embedded in amber. Since October 2019, the Real Clear Politics national polling average has shown Biden with a healthy lead in head-to-head matchups with Trump. And that edge has been large enough to overcome any built-in Republican advantage in the Electoral College. Similarly, Biden’s odds of winning in the regularly updated election forecast at Nate Silver’s website, FiveThirtyEight, have almost always been in the 70-to-75 percent range since June. As CNN polling analyst Harry Enten put it last week, “The stability of this race is record breaking when looking at polling dating back to 1940.”
But that isn’t the impression that you would have gotten over the past six months from reading or watching the political news. Almost every other story seemed to concoct a new rationale as to why a Trump comeback was inevitable.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Democrats panicked when Trump’s popularity bounced up a few points because of a short-lived rally-around-the-president effect. After a cash-strapped Biden swept the Super Tuesday primaries, NBC News stressed that, in contrast, “the Trump camp is counting its cash after hitting some big fundraising goals in the last six months.” As Bernie Sanders continued his no-hope campaign throughout March, the Times reported, “Establishment Democrats are desperately hoping to avoid a reprise of 2016, when Mr. Sanders battled to the bitter end against Hillary Clinton.”