Tuesday’s election result was almost universally reported as a comeback win for Mark Dayton. The former senator erased Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s early lead and swept to victory in the Democratic primary for governor.
The Star Tribune suggested that Dayton “pulled ahead” around midnight. The Pioneer Press labeled the election a “come-from-behind win” for Dayton. Minnpost observed that Kelliher’s lead “kept shrinking.”
This was, of course, untrue.
The election result was in the ballot box when the polls closed at 8 p.m. It was what it was. Dayton had drawn more votes than Kelliher. Whether one candidate had had a “lead” or had made a “comeback” was merely a manifestation of the order of counting the ballots. Had votes on the Iron Range been counted and reported first, then Dayton would have been “ahead” all night. In that way, the drama associated with an “early lead” and a “comeback victory” was an illusion perpetrated by the vote-counting process and especially by the news media.
This hard lesson came back to me as I read the papers on Wednesday morning. It reminded me of the first time I was royally chewed out as a young reporter. Fresh out of college, I had been proud to be selected to write the Raleigh News and Observer’s account of the 1972 presidential primary in North Carolina. I had been even prouder of my suspenseful story: The favorite-son candidate, Terry Sanford, the former governor and president of Duke University, had raced out to an early lead before falling to the ferocious comeback of George Wallace.
When my editor called me into his office the next morning, I expected a pat on the back. What I got was a stiff reprimand that has stuck in the pit of my stomach ever since. The order of vote counting was arbitrary and irrelevant to the results, my editor, Claude Sitton, told me. I had distorted the story for dramatic effect.
But have things changed?
The point of recounting this uncomfortable moment in my career is not to scold my fellow reporters but to pose a question: Have things changed? Has the 24-hour news cycle, the proliferation of media outlets, the digital nature of communications, the “needs” of the news audience and the political class changed to the point that the vote count itself has become a legitimate part of the outcome? Or, is my old editor just as right today as he was back then? Are the moment-by-moment tallies a kind of fraud delivered for dramatic effect?
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie agrees with my old editor. “The news media can’t resist the temptation to take the horse race from the campaign right into election night, even after the ballots are in the box,” he told me yesterday. “That’s because they feel they have to satisfy advertisers and entertain viewers and readers,” he said, adding that the way election results are reported is something of a distortion.
Ritchie noted that exit polls are another example of how the media attempt to dramatize elections by predicting the outcome before votes are counted. Last year’s Franken-Coleman recount further complicated the issue, he said, when each side used the counting process to raise money to use against the other.
Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina, is also bothered by “this fiction that candidates are moving up and down on election night when, in fact, the election is over.” In most states, computers deliver vote tallies almost at once, he added, which tends to remove any drama even from the counting.
A false narrative
Dane Smith, the former political reporter for the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press, and now director of the Growth & Justice policy organization, had a similar reaction. “The election is over at 8:00,” he said, “and the order in which the votes are counted creates a false narrative of underdogs and comebacks.”
Smith acknowledged, however, that it’s hard for reporters not to fall into the trap of “early lead/comeback,” especially in a matchup like Dayton-Kelliher. Huge geographic differences were expected in the candidates’ popularity, with Dayton’s strength on the Iron Range and with those votes notoriously slow to be counted. That’s what provided the illusion of a comeback and a little extra drama on election night.
It’s harder nowadays, when news deadlines arrive every minute, to separate election results from the order of counting. The only way to preserve “reality” would be to keep the tally secret until it’s finished, then release the results. But I don’t think the pubic would stand for that. Maybe the best we reporters can do is to emphasize more fully that “leads” are simply an artifact of vote counting, that the horse race has already been won, and that there’s no such thing as a “comeback.”
Steve Berg, who writes MinnPost’s Cityscape blog, is a former Washington reporter and national correspondent for the Star Tribune. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.