Reprinted with permission from PressRun, Eric Boehlert's essential media newsletter (subscribe today!)
The staggering weight of America's pandemic continues to come into view with each passing day, as the death toll and the number of lost jobs catapult to new heights. Politically, the carnage represents the worst possible news for the incumbent president, who now has to run for re-election against the grim backdrop of 50,000 deaths and 26 million unemployed, as consumer confidence collapses in record time.
Yet incredibly, the political press remains committed to its longtime 'Dems In Disarray' narrative, deriding Democrats as being forever confused and outsmarted. (They're not.) Specifically, the campaign coverage for November seems oddly focused on the supposed woes hounding Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
Left out or glossed over as the 'Dems in Disarray' drums bang loudly? In the last 42 polls regarding the Biden vs. Trump match-up, Biden leads in 39. And two of the other three are ties. How does the press look at that data and conclude that Biden's the one facing steep hurdles? It's Both Sides journalism on steroids. It's a stalwart commitment to pretend the two candidates are facing equal challenges this campaign. (Did I mention the apocalyptic job losses under Trump?)
The 'Dems in Disarray' coverage, particularly at the New York Times, has been a loud and steady lately: Biden doesn't have enough money! Biden doesn't have enough YouTube followers! Biden doesn't have enough young voters!
Some context. Biden recently posted his largest fundraising month ever, $47 million, yet the Times immediately framed the announcement as bad news for Biden — Trump has more! In 2016, the Trump campaign was badly outspent and won the election. But in 2020, it's fatal for Democrats if their candidate is outspent?
Yes, Biden's trailing on the digital front and I'm sure Democrats wish that weren't the case. But it should be pointed out that Biden trailed on the digital front during the primary season, and won that contest in a rout. The same goes for the youth vote. Biden didn't harness it during the primary, and he won the nomination walking away. Yet the Times remains obsessed with the topic, suggesting there's a deep rift within the party. Polling suggests otherwise.
Fact: Biden is making historic inroads among seniors, a voting block that has backed Republicans for the last three decades. But the Times even tried to hide that good news. This was the paper's recent headline: "Is Biden Gaining Older Voters, and Losing Young Ones?" Readers would assume Biden was looking at a wash, right? He is picking up older voters, losing younger ones. In fact, there's been a huge 15-point swing toward the Democratic nominee among older voters, as compared to the 2016 election. This, while Biden holds steady among younger voters, as compared to 2016. So why the pessimistic, Biden-struggles headline?
I admit I have no idea who's going to win in November. So I'm not suggesting that polling in April guarantees a Biden victory. Traditionally however, polling has played a large role in campaign coverage, and the idea that the candidate who has clearly established a solid, consistent lead in dozens of polls this year is the candidate who's struggling, really does defy journalism norms. If roles were reversed, does anyone think with Trump leading Biden in nearly 40 straight polls the Times would habitually publish stories about the campaign hurdles Trump faces?
This pattern has been weirdly consistent. Twelve months ago, the Times had no idea what the Democratic convention in 2020 would look like. But that didn't stop the paper from warning about a chaotic, "agonizing" nominating event. Incredibly, even the Democrats' historic midterm election wins in 2018 were presented under the 'Dems in Disarray' banner.
As for presidential campaigns, there simply seems to be different media standards for Democrats and Republicans up for re-election. Back in 2011, as President Barack Obama eyed his second term, the campaign press raised all kinds of alarms about his prospects when polls showed him tied with likely Republican opponents.
At the time, there was this memorable headline from a 5,000-word New York Times magazine piece that ran in November 2011, surveying his odds for re-election: "Is Obama Toast?" The Times announced that "Obama has gone from a modest favorite to win re-election to, probably, a slight underdog," and that was treated as a very big deal. Can you image the hysterical 2012 coverage if a Republican had been polling ahead of Obama in nearly 40 straight surveys, the way Biden leads Trump today?
Beltway journalists love to portray Trump as super savvy and always two steps ahead of disarrayed Democrats. Today, that's hard to do when he's got 50,000 deaths and 26 million lost jobs wrapped around the neck of his campaign.
UPDATED: Hours after I posted this column, the Times published another Dems in Disarray piece about the Biden campaign. You can't make this stuff up, folks.
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