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How The Press Missed The Biden Surge

Obsessing over white Trump voters didn't help.
How The Press Missed The Biden Surge

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Joe Biden completed his stunning campaign resurgence Tuesday night, easily dominating the primary contests and all but securing the nomination for the Democratic Party. Counted out as dead last month, following weak showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Biden's sudden and overwhelming rebound caught most of the campaign press and the pundit class completely off-guard, as a suburban surge of voters helped make the difference on Super Tuesday and last night. (A Washington Post analysis found that Biden won 60 percent of voters who didn’t cast a ballot in 2016.)

How does the campaign press, with its army of media participants, miss the only story that they've been covering for 10 months? Specifically, how do they miss the idea that Biden would be victorious in a high-turnout election cycle, considering he was often portrayed by the press as an uninspiring candidate? Looking back, there's a list of likely factors involved.

At the very top of that list has been the political press' utter obsession with covering white Republican Trump voters for the last year. It seems that we've seen hundreds of reports since Inauguration Day, as the D.C. press, feeling guilty for having missed the Trump win, scrambled to saturate red states with an army of reporters willing to interview any middle-aged Midwestern Trump supporter, preferably in a diner!

News outlets never explained why they considered "Trump Supporters Still Support Trump" dispatches to constitute big news. Instead, the consistently soft profiles seemed to be a way for the supposedly liberal and biased news media to show conservatives that they willing to present their best side.

What's that have to do with the Biden surge? By spending years obsessing over white Republican voters, the press turned its attention away from Democratic voters, and specifically from black Democratic voters, who fueled Biden's comeback. Recall that the press rushed to make all kinds of wild, sweeping conclusions about the Democratic primary after just two, small, rural, and overwhelmingly white states voted. A press corps more in touch with Democratic voters would have realized the folly of that kind of coverage, and those kind of prognostications.

To be fair, Biden's surge in the polls has been among the most dramatic in primary history. "We have him gaining 36.2 points in national polls over the past 14 days," noted Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight. "The previous record is John Kerry, who gained 32.3 points from 1/21 to 2/24/04 in our retrospective national average." But still, a campaign press more keyed in wouldn't have been so shocked by the development.

A lot of it also might have been cultural, in that a campaign press corps made up of journalists likely in their twenties and thirties just didn’t connect with a septuagenarian candidate whose base was older voters, compared to Bernie Sanders' base which skewed quite young and whose campaign was synonymous with generational change.

As Ryan Lizza wrote in Politico last year:

The first thing you notice at a Joe Biden event is the age: Many of the reporters covering him are really young. Biden is not. The press corps, or so the Biden campaign sees it, is culturally liberal and highly attuned to modern issues around race and gender and social justice. Biden is not. The reporters are Extremely Online. Biden couldn’t tell you what TikTok is.

Consequently, Sanders' campaign was often depicted as being supremely savvy in terms of messaging and media, while Biden's was depicted as something resembling a fossil.

That also dovetailed with the campaign press’ intense focus for months on the so-called "youth vote," which Biden is famously lacking in. The constant narrative was that with a surge in turnout among the young during the primary, Biden was doomed as Democratic voters looked for new leadership. At the same time, the press spent very little time focusing on the other end of the voting spectrum — elderly voters, who remain intensely loyal to Biden. And honestly, it's not even the "elderly." According to recent CNN poll, Biden enjoys a 55-point advantage among Democratic voters over the age of 45.

On Super Tuesday, just in terms of ballots cast, it became clear which voting block matters more this year, and it wasn't the one the press featured for most of the campaign.

Meanwhile, there was a media over-emphasis on campaign fundraising and ad spending by the candidates. Biden lacked in both — he spent just $2.2 million on Super Tuesday ads — but in the end, it didn't affect the voting.

There's been a recent claim that Biden's surge was because of friendly media coverage. But that notion doesn't really add up. The claim is that after his win in South Carolina, Biden earned so much free media via news coverage that that propelled him to victory on Super Tuesday. It turns out that between South Carolina and Super Tuesday, Sanders actually won twice as much earned media as Biden, via news coverage, according to media monitoring data from Critical Mention. (Biden earned $72 million worth of earned media, Sanders $156 million.)

The campaign press loves to present elections in the form of a storyline, a narrative, that’s easy and fun to digest for news consumers. But when journalists get wed to narratives, they sometimes lose sight of the race.

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