< Pressing On

Transcript

Friday, April 04, 2008

MALE CORRESPONDENT:
With three weeks to go until the crucial Pennsylvania primary, polls show that Hillary Clinton's lead over Barack Obama is shrinking.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
But with 158 delegates at stake, both candidates realize it is key to win the keystone state.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Now, the last time the Democrats had a big fight on their hands, really, was 1968.
[END CLIPS]
BOB GARFIELD:
Yeah, it sure is a close and exciting race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Barack Obama's lead over Hillary Clinton is, in fact, so small that he cannot lock up enough pledged delegates to guarantee victory before the August convention. And with the Pennsylvania primary approaching, the media have followed every campaign twist and turn.

The New York Times: "Obama's support softens in poll." Reuters: "Clinton leads Obama, McCain in key match-ups." The Wall Street Journal: "Indiana marks the next test for Clinton." And here's NBC's Brian Williams.
BRIAN WILLIAMS:
There are 10 more contests to go before there are no more for the Democrats. And sooner or later, there will be a Democratic nominee. For now, though, it's a two-way race.
BOB GARFIELD:
Two-way race? Well, yes and no. Like the Mideast peace process and the Kansas City Royals, Senator Clinton technically has a chance to prevail, but that would take something of a miracle.

Chris Beam is a political reporter for Slate, where he is the main contributor to the Trailhead and Hillary Deathwatch blogs. I asked him what percentage of the remaining popular vote Clinton would need to catch up to Obama.
CHRIS BEAM:
I would put the number somewhere around 60 percent. If you look at how she did in Ohio, she won with 55 percent of the vote and ended up netting 300,000 votes. So it is possible to score big victories, but the problem is they all have to be big for her to make up that number.
BOB GARFIELD:
Not only big, but historically big.
CHRIS BEAM:
Right. And given the way that this race has gone so far, the likelihood of her winning the next eight contests by that margin is next to impossible.
BOB GARFIELD:
Is there any chance that delegates from the Florida and Michigan [LAUGHS] primaries will be counted at the convention?
CHRIS BEAM:
They're pretty much guaranteed to be seated right now. They will attend. But it depends what you mean by count. If they're able to allocate the delegates proportionally and, say, in Florida, to give Hillary the delegates that she won based on the results of that election, then, yeah, that could help her. But right now I think that's pretty much hit a roadblock.
BOB GARFIELD:
What are the chances of her amassing more pledged delegates than Obama between now and the convention?
CHRIS BEAM:
The odds of that are zero, barring the meteor scenario. If there's some revelation akin to Jeremiah Wright but 10 times worse, something that Obama isn't able to survive, then the pledged delegate count won't matter as much.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, when you're talking about a meteor, you're talking about a video of Barack Obama in a motel room with a den of Cub Scouts setting fire to the American flag.
CHRIS BEAM:
He has to be client number eight, pretty much.
BOB GARFIELD:
So, to recap, to persuade so-called superdelegates to discount the pledged delegate count and support her, Clinton needs some combination of an aggregate landslide margin in the 10 remaining primaries, a disqualifying bombshell about her opponent and winner-take-all re votes in Florida and Michigan, which both states have said will not occur.

True enough. Careful readers of campaign coverage know this. It has been duly reported. But does the totality of the coverage, especially the breathless stride-by-stride call of the horserace, distort the political reality?

Understanding that even posing this question exposes us to accusations of partisanship, we nonetheless feel obliged to ask why, after prematurely burying McCain before Iowa, Clinton after Iowa and Obama after New Hampshire, are the media suddenly so unjudgmental?

With actual vote counts in hand instead of mere poll results and punditry, why contribute to a sense of drama and suspense when, barring a bizarre convergence of improbabilities, the race is all over but the shouting? So, once again, apologies to Clinton-faithful for the question but at least it's not a rhetorical one.

Political blogger Marc Ambinder, an associate editor of The Atlantic, insists that, probabilities or no probabilities, it's not over ‘till it's over.
MARC AMBINDER:
It is unlikely that she finds a way to win the Democratic nomination. It is not impossible. The manner by which Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination is unknown at this point.

For example, the mass of superdelegates, those who can actually tangibly end this thing once and for all, have yet to do so. Party elders, like Harry Reid, Howard Dean, have set a date of July 1st, so it's hard to come up with a conclusion, as some journalists I know have done, that the press should simply stop covering Hillary Clinton, should anoint Barack Obama the nominee and plunge head-on into the general election.
BOB GARFIELD:
But isn't there a middle road - not coronating Obama and relegating Hillary Clinton to, you know, the dustbin of political history, but to put the same kind of context in the play of coverage as it puts into the stories themselves, which is to say pay less attention to the back and forth of a campaign that, you know, is fundamentally over and cover the remaining contests with the appropriate emphasis, you know, even if it has to be on the inside pages?

MARC AMBINDER:
I think it's a truism that given X to cover, the media is going to cover it as a horserace. But I think, you know, major network evening newscasts have in their pieces pointed out that Barack Obama is likely to win the nomination because of his delegate leads, and it'll be challenging for Hillary Clinton. Major newspaper articles have done the same thing.

There is one holdout to this, and that is, of course, the cable news networks. They are the medium that, I think, is financially profiting from a prolonged race.

They're probably the only medium that is financially profiting from an extended race, because if you talk to producers and budget planners at the television networks, they will tell you that they're losing money because of the need to continually supply satellite trucks and personnel to cover two candidates. There are very few newspapers that have a full-time person covering John McCain.

All of that is to say that I think people see how cable news networks cover the story. They impart that coverage to the rest of the media, which, I think, is being a bit more responsible.
BOB GARFIELD:
But I continue to be struck by the totality of the coverage that suggests that the race is a race and that something other than a defection by superdelegates of historic significance could change the way it turns out.
MARC AMBINDER:
Half the party, if you include Florida and Michigan votes, at this point is not fully on board with Barack Obama. And that's another reality that, I think, is reflected in the uncertainty about the state of the race. I don't know how or why that reality isn't as important as Hillary Clinton's miniscule chance of winning the nomination.
BOB GARFIELD:
Hmm, I just wonder if Americans were polled, not about who they want to see as the Democratic nominee but polled about their understanding of the race, whether it would reveal a misimpression.
MARC AMBINDER:
That's a good question. But I'm not so sure that if there's a belief perseverance - I guess is what psychologists would call it - among voters that there's a race, it's something that we could point to as evidence that the media isn't doing its job.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Marc. Thank you very much.
MARC AMBINDER:
Thanks very much.

BOB GARFIELD:
Marc Ambinder covers politics for The Atlantic. David Chalian is political director for ABC News. He also believes it is for the Democratic Party, not the press, to call the fight, and the press's job to document the blow-by-blow till that happens.
DAVID CHALIAN:
The pledged delegate lead, though significant, that Senator Obama has is still rather close. And the key factor here is that neither one of them can get to that magic number until the superdelegates make their mind up. As long as that's the case, this is a race.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, you don't sit in a staff meeting every morning with your reporters and producers going, how do we keep this story alive? There's nothing in it for you per se to over-cover a thin story. Is there?

DAVID CHALIAN:
Well, I don't think that anybody has ever said that politics is the thing that drives ratings or newspaper sales through the roof.
BOB GARFIELD:
[LAUGHS]
DAVID CHALIAN:
[LAUGHS] I don't think that's ever been the case. So, no, I don't think there's really something in it necessarily for us. I do think that we have seen in this election cycle an unprecedented level of interest. We see it in our polling. We see it in voting registration statistics and turnout for the events. And clearly, I think, there has been an uptick in sort of online political reading, if you will, so there is a very engaged electorate.

But I don't think we have ever felt challenged that we somehow had to keep the story alive. This story seems to be keeping itself alive quite well.
BOB GARFIELD:
Let me run this bit of pop psychology by you. The media were so burned by prematurely burying the McCain campaign, by burying Hillary Clinton after Iowa, by resurrecting [LAUGHS] her after New Hampshire, and so on, that we as an institution are just sitting on our hands for fear of saying anything that would smack of analysis that could come back to haunt us.
DAVID CHALIAN:
There's no doubt that the McCain lesson, the New Hampshire lesson, has just caused us to take a step back for a moment and say, sometimes things can happen and we have to allow for that. I don't know that that's necessarily a bad thing that we sometimes hold back in our definitive analysis before all the final facts are in.
BOB GARFIELD:
What about pure cynicism, the idea that the press imagines that the Clinton campaign has another weapon that it's just waiting to unleash that could be the political bombshell that does dislodge the superdelegates and bring them into the Clinton camp?
DAVID CHALIAN:
I don't think that we are at the stage of the campaign that either campaign can hold too much in their arsenal. Now, there is no doubt they know that their only path to the nomination is to buy Senator Clinton more time to allow for the possibility that more information will be put out there that will demonstrate to superdelegates that Barack Obama is going to have a tough time in the general election. If they can't make that argument, she's not going to be the nominee.
BOB GARFIELD:
If you will for a moment buy my premise that the race is fundamentally over, are the media not aiding and abetting the Clinton campaign's strategy to buy time by keeping the appearance of a contest alive?
DAVID CHALIAN:
If the Clinton campaign had no reasonable argument to make to these undecided superdelegates, there would be nothing to stop them rallying around Barack Obama right now. Everything is in place to do so.

There is clearly a reason these uncommitted superdelegates are still willing to watch what voters in upcoming states do and to hear Hillary Clinton and her team out on an argument about Barack Obama's electability. If that was an absurd argument on its face, I think it would actually fundamentally be over. We're just not quite there yet.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, David, thank you so much for talking to us.
DAVID CHALIAN:
Thank you. My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD:
David Chalian is political director of ABC News.