Americans following much of the national media’s coverage of domestic politics came to election night with the expectation that a nation furious about the Trump presidency would resoundingly throw him out of office and take revenge on his party by handing Democrats a majority in the Senate and a yet wider majority in the House of Representatives.
More ambitious pundits repeated predictions, which first gained wide attention after President Barak Obama’s 2004 victory, that demographic and generational changes would permanently make the GOP into a minority party poorly positioned to control Congress or win the presidency. Taking this cue (or perhaps inspiring it), many prominent voices in the Democratic Party itself foresaw a national mandate that would fuel a new age of “progressive” leadership in Washington.
While it looks increasingly certain that President Trump will not be granted a second term, a massive blue wave of rebuke was hardly the face of the 2020 election. With some counts still ongoing, under legal challenges, or headed toward runoffs, former Vice President Joe Biden squeaked out a victory, Republicans held their Senate majority, and the GOP cut significantly into Democrats’ hold on the House.
In 2016, polls and media alike treated a Clinton victory as a fait accompli and depicted down-ticket GOP candidates running for cover. After President Trump delivered a large electoral victory and Republicans safely retained control of both houses of Congress, The New York Times ran a somewhat contrite acknowledgment of its disconnect from what proved to be much of the electorate. Associated Press ran a series of articles aimed at giving readers a closer look at “Trump Country.” Yet to many, even such a title betrayed a view of the President’s supporters as a cultish curiosity rather than roughly half of American voters.
Four years later, even with markedly different results, another sizable gap between the common narrative and how citizens voted left many making recriminations and asking questions about what constricts much of the media’s ability to read the totality of America’s electoral pulse. Outlets such as the Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press have never run from their image as left-leaning, but the widening chasm between the vision of America they present and voting booth realities gives fodder to those who question their status as reflections of the various political sympathies of the nation’s citizens.
Many assumed that the broadened coalition of voters that gave President Trump his 2016 victory — mostly blue-collar whites — was a fluke that would disappear once the President failed to revive coal mining and U.S. steel. Yet, not only did these voters largely return; pro-Trump turnout drove record levels of voter participation.
After a race where both parties worked overtime to shine a light on their opponent’s most extreme elements, will somewhat mixed results and proof that GOP support is deeper and wider than Democrats appear to have expected portend any moderating effect on the nation’s body politic?
Reporting Live From the Echo Chamber
Timothy Kneeland, a professor of history and political science at Nazareth College in Rochester, said that while he saw no sinister motives in mainstream media’s election coverage, the results show they are missing something.
“I think there’s a disconnect between the national media and the people on the ground,” he said. “It becomes a question of who they’re talking to and where they’re getting their information from. Most of the smaller local media do a good job, but the national media seems to be talking to themselves and not to the ordinary American.”
Professor Kneeland said that some of the lack of diversity in the sentiments presented comes from the recalcitrance of many “shy” Trump voters.
“There’s a stigma attached to voting for Trump and it may be difficult for [reporters] to find a lot of regular voters who are willing to commit themselves openly to saying they are a supporter of Donald Trump, especially if they know they are speaking to the Times or the Washington Post or broadcast media that have been very critical of the President and are not particularly inclined towards his polices,” he said.
The effect of news coverage, opinion pieces, and an atmosphere of social media perpetuating a world in which no one can imagine the idea of voting Republican, much less for President Trump, some feel has created an echo chamber where much of the mainstream media and those that base their perceptions on it feed off of a self-perpetuating one-dimensional version of reality.
“The media needs to get out of its bubble and start covering the feelings of large numbers of Americans,” said Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics and social science at Sarah Lawrence College and visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you read The New York Times you would think that America is dominated by this woke social justice mindset, but the fact is that their editors and reporters are missing a set of views that plenty of people in this country clearly have. … Granted, in 2016 everybody was surprised by what happened, but they’ve had four years to figure it out, why did they not do that?”
Professor Abrams said that not only did mainstream media not seriously look to understand the pro-Trump electorate; it remained focused on a picture of his supporters as overwhelmingly backward and bigoted.
“It’s not true and it’s offensive,” he said. “It demonizes them and understandably makes Trump supporters angry.”
As for the root of this phenomenon, Professor Abrams said that one element of the narrative that foretold a tsunami of national anger at the Trump administration, thereby heralding a new progressive era, was “wishful thinking.” But he also felt much blame lay with a culture created by left-leaning media committed to maintaining a purely progressive voice.
“It’s their job to figure out the truth and to cover it, but how are you supposed to do that if you’re only talking to yourselves and pushing other groups out the door?” he said.
Professor Abrams referenced the Times’ “refusal to engage in dialogue” over its controversial 1619 Project which depicted America’s founding and much of its history as a story primarily about slavery and perpetuation of white supremacy.
Similar criticism of the Times abounded this past summer when amid anti-police rioting it published an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, defending the use of federal troops to restore order in some cities, but quickly apologized for running the piece and fired the editor who had approved it.
Saul Anuzis, a Republican political consultant, felt that while the echo chamber effect indeed played a role in the story of a blue wave of rebuke, still, promoting it was a conscious strategic move.
“Unfortunately, the mainstream media has moved away from being a fair arbitrator and become a propaganda arm for the Democratic Party,” he said. “Rather than reporting, every chance they got, they echoed Democratic messaging and did whatever they could to sell the concept of a big blue wave that never came.”
Beyond ideology, some feel the nature of 21st-century journalism plays a major role in reinforcing echo-chamber reporting. Whereas major newspapers once employed large staffs who spent most of their time physically walking their beat and interacting with the people in it, falling revenue in the age of internet news, and the cutbacks that necessitated, have made such a phenomenon largely a thing of the past. The result is a fourth estate that gauges public sentiment through other news sources and social media.
“You used to have beat reporters who knew their communities, knew the people and the powerbrokers, but that is long dead and gone,” said Professor Abrams. “What you have now are journalists reading Twitter which is dominated by a bunch of loud liberals. My research has shown that the bulk of tweets are made by a very small subset of people, but that is their source. It’s not healthy and it’s not helpful. Twitter has value, but for a journalist to do his job, he has to go deeper and the norm is that that is not happening.”
Wagging the Dog?
In his remarks making a case for his victory hiding under a blanket of fraud and corruption, President Trump himself suggested that polls showing him significantly trailing former Vice President Joe Biden were part and parcel of a scheme to suppress voters who supported his reelection and to discourage potential donors.
“As everyone now recognizes, media polling was election interference, in the truest sense of that word, by powerful special interests. These really phony polls — I have to call them phony polls, fake polls — were designed to keep our voters at home, create the illusion of momentum for Mr. Biden, and diminish Republicans’ ability to raise funds. They were what’s called ‘suppression polls.’ Everyone knows that now. And it’s never been used to the extent that it’s been used on this last election,” said President Trump.
Despite sharp criticism for the media’s representation of Trump support and where the 2020 electorate stood, none of Hamodia’s interview subjects felt that reporting was part of a planned effort to discourage Republican voters from casting their ballots. Had it been so, the effort seems to have failed, as data showed record high turnout, much of it in support of the President.
Professor Kneeland said that he did not think the media’s motivations were conspiratorial, but that consistently reporting doomsday predictions could certainly have a potential effect on voters and even more so on donors.
“I don’t know if it’s a conscious effort, but if I were a Republican, I would say that it potentially leads to decline in voters and for sure for fundraising. Nobody wants to back a losing candidate,” he said.
Not all agreed that the media’s pre-election coverage merited castigation. Nearly all major pollsters consistently predicted that Biden would win a far handier victory in many states that he won narrowly or lost. Likewise, data going into the elections painted a picture of significant GOP losses in the House and Senate that did not come to be — a lead they were following.
“I wouldn’t blame the media,” said Andrew Gelman, professor of politics and statistics at Columbia University. “The media is motivated to be accurate. They don’t want to look foolish.”
In the week since the election, much has already been written about polling failures. In addition to problems of gauging recalcitrant Trump supporters, many pointed to the challenges of polling during a pandemic and a model that was not expecting the massive voter turnout that materialized. Professor Gelman said that consistently low approval ratings for the President and the Democrats’ success in mid-term Congressional elections gave media good reason to expect Democratic dominance in 2020.
“They were looking at an unpopular President, and coming off of 2018, guided by the polls, what they said made sense,” he said.
Michael Fragin, a senior advisor to the chairman of New York’s Republican Party, deflected the notion that the media had conjured up an inaccurate picture and pointed out that while many House and Senate predictions were off, as more ballots were counted, polling was looking increasingly more accurate. Moreover, he felt that while much mainstream media paints the President and his party in dark colors, a robust network of right-leaning media is in place to offer an alternative picture to those in search of it.
“The media dislikes Donald Trump passionately, but for everyone following MSNBC, there’s a whole ecosystem of Fox and Newsmax, Breitbart and talk radio. The right is not lacking voices to make its case.”
Return to Center?
The morning after Election Day, even many of the media outlets who had painted an ominous picture of the GOP’s future ran articles taking stock of failings in polling and reporting.
“I’m hoping this will shake up their industry and make them reevaluate their role, but it’s a hard task. Journalism schools are liberal by nature and so you’re starting with a group of people who generally lean in that direction,” said Mr. Anuzis.
Many Democrats themselves expressed disappointment over losses in Congress. A series of meetings took place among moderate Democrats in Congress (several of whom lost seats they had flipped in 2018) to discuss what had gone wrong.
Notes on those discussions presented in a report by Politico, listed items like a failure to address GOP branding of Democrats as radicals and socialists and to respond to concerns over law and order. Some reports have suggested that many Democratic members are pointing fingers at high-profile ultra-progressives for scaring off moderate voters and questioned Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s future in leadership over allowing investigations of the President to dominate the past two years and her inflexible stance over attempts at additional coronavirus financial relief.
The GOP likely stands at its own crossroads where members decide whether to find ways to propel the populist nativist vision and style of the Trump presidency or to rekindle the party’s traditional conservative quasi-libertarian brand.
Democrats too are faced with a challenge as to whether they will continue to allow themselves to be defined by the progressive voices that seemingly gave Republicans potent ammunition, but drove its higher turnout among younger urban voters, or if it will look to follow through on the moderating message that Mr. Biden at times struck during his campaign.
“Biden is a D.C. establishment guy. He has 40 years of relationships he could use to forge a more united front and work in a bipartisan manner to get more things done,” said Mr. Anuzis. “Trump is a bulldog. He got a lot of fundamental Republican policy issues through, but he didn’t go with the status quo. There are a lot of Republicans who are ready to go back to a quieter, more establishment model that will have less of a voice for the general public but might get more done.”
Traditionally, successful presidential candidates carry their party’s members to victories in a “down-ticket” effect. Some observers commented that the incongruous elections results for the Democratic Party does less to endorse their progressive agenda, and mostly handed Mr. Biden the White House based on being someone who is not President Trump.
“Joe Biden had a negative coattail effect; he can’t say that he has a mandate,” said Professor Kneeland.
As recounts and legal challenges go on, the country remains focused on the details of the election, something that will likely fade should the likely possibility of a Biden administration come to be. Yet, that could still have an impact on what that means for policy priorities and the national political tenor.
“A Biden victory is a victory, and he has a clear popular vote victory. If he does win these states, he’ll have the mandate he wants,” said Professor Gelman. “If the Republicans indeed hold the Senate though, that will moderate him, he doesn’t have dictatorial power. … It would be nice to see something other than the lurches to the right and the left, a lot of people would like to see them be able to work together.”