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Did Dayton stage a ‘comeback victory’ Tuesday? Not really

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?

Mark Ritchie
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Mark Ritchie

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.”

Dane Smith
Dane Smith

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.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Jim Camery on 08/13/2010 - 10:39 am.

    I winced when I saw that angle in the PP also. I don’t think it takes a lot of thinking to see through the arguement. If the writers were looking for drama and conflict they could have used the region vs. region angle, which is pretty good proxy for time-that-ballot-is-counted.

  2. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/13/2010 - 10:42 am.

    I think it is harmless fun, Steve. Everyone loves a horse race. As long as the polls are closed before the results are released, it is fine.

    It was a lot of fun to see the votes come in. Anyone who has been in Minnesota for a while knows very well that our contrarian friends on the Range always seem to have (figuratively) the last word. Dayton knew this and he did plenty of spadework there.

    It was really sad to see MAK get the rug pulled out from under her at the end. But that is politics in Minnesota.

  3. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 08/13/2010 - 12:09 pm.

    Well done, Steve. You make excellent points. I also think the story is quite fair, because it recognizes the challenge journalists face as well as broader expectations for news.

  4. Submitted by NIcole Masika on 08/13/2010 - 12:28 pm.

    Your old editor was right. It is extremely silly to label Tuesday’s results a “comeback”

  5. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 08/13/2010 - 12:39 pm.

    It seems like the Dark Ages now, but I had the privilege of being in a couple of candidate “war rooms” back in the late-1970s and early-1980s and the candidates often have pretty good idea, even in a close race, of what their prospects are by 8:30 (at the latest). Each candidate gets a set of sample precincts and puts a projected “needed vote” value on each one. When the returns come in, they compare the actual value to the “needed” value and, after awhile, they pretty much know where they stand. If it’s close, they have a second set of precincts.

    For those of us now watching at home, the nature of the narrative likely reflects the level of expertise on the subject. I “get” this stuff (as opposed to the World Cup, where a 12-year-old youth soccer player could school me); the votes shown at the various news outlets is distorted by sequence of the vote collection. Tuesday night, Anderson-Kelliher’s early lead was largely due to the media’s ability to tally the metropolitan precincts almost immediately while having to wait for the outstate reporting, where Dayton was purported–correctly as it turns out–to be stronger.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t beat yourself up about it Steve. Paraphrasing Bill’s point, the journey is often a heckuva lot more interesting that the destination. Even if it’s the Yankees versus a high school team, they still play nine innings (unless there is a 100-run rule in this example) and there’s always going to be interesting angles as the game unfolds.

  6. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/13/2010 - 02:52 pm.

    Steve, I for one would have disagreed with your old editor. It’s part of the drama and excitement of the evening. As it happens and I think the reporting style is fair to describe it as come from behind because that’s how it happened that night as the results were coming in and felt by the the campaigns depending on who was ahead at the time.

  7. Submitted by Ross Williams on 08/13/2010 - 03:56 pm.

    “I think it is harmless fun, ”

    I disagree. The process in Florida after the election makes clear the danger. The votes were already in, the election was over.

    The efforts of both the Gore and Bush campaigns were clearly directed at distorting the count in their favor. It was if the attorneys had barged into the jury room. But instead of being condemned, their efforts were treated as legitimate extensions of their election contest. They weren’t. The election was over. The only people who had a legitimate interest in the outcome were the voters themselves.

  8. Submitted by Tim Larson on 08/13/2010 - 09:22 pm.

    Your editor was correct. News and entertainment should never be mixed.

    Unfortunately, it’s a large part of what’s wrong with this country right now.

  9. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 08/14/2010 - 09:28 am.

    I would disagree with an absolute prescription to the belief that news and entertainment should never be mixed. In a practical sense, you’re being entertaining to a degree if you’re a good writer, including journalism. That doesn’t mean making up things for the sake of having a more dramatic story, but it means being able to describe events beyond a bland recitation of facts.

    Dayton did come from behind that night, in the vote tallying. The reports are about the fluidity and unknown of the evening and the excitement felt and how it shifted as the night went on. I think any reasonable reader can comprehend that as well.

  10. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 08/14/2010 - 02:28 pm.

    Whoah, Ross, hold your horses.

    When I said that watching the election results come in and following it like a horse race was “harmless fun” that is a far cry from the Florida Gore/Bush situation.

    The process in Florida makes clear the danger? Maybe in Hialeah…

  11. Submitted by Carl Karasti on 08/17/2010 - 04:21 pm.

    Steve, I completely agree with you on this. It truly is a false story. And it’s only “hard for reporters not to fall into the trap of ‘early lead/comeback'” if they, and their employers, are more interested in entertainment than in real news. I listened for a while to Gary Eichten of MPR going on and on about the vote counts in Dayton vs. Anderson-Kelliher and felt embarrassed for him that he was so caught up in this, along with his guests on the program. I’d be in favor of restricting the release of any vote totals from anywhere until they are all officially available state-wide.

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