Democrats and progressive issues had a great night on Tuesday: Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s strong reelection, Democrats gaining control of both chambers of the Virginia state legislature, Dan McCaffery’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court win, Ohio voters putting abortion rights in their state constitution, and a bad night for Moms for Liberty-endorsed school board candidates. It’s an impressive list! If you think that’s going to dissuade the media from continuing to run with everything-is-bad-for-Biden narratives, though, you will need to think again.
To be sure, some in the media got it—even some surprises, like Politico. (Seriously!) The New York Times, on the other hand, cannot accept that its big weekend poll showing Donald Trump leading President Joe Biden in key battleground states might not be the top story of the day after voters went to the polls and handed Biden’s party some wins.
Outside of the straight news pieces about results of specific elections, the Times coverage of Tuesday’s elections was overwhelmingly focused on how even though Democrats won, That Poll is still right a year out. That no matter how much Democrats keep winning elections, Biden is in deep trouble. Here's Peter Baker: “Poll? What poll? The Democratic victories in Tuesday’s off-year elections gave President Biden’s White House some breathing space that it desperately needed just when it needed it.” Got that? The poll is the story. The elections are the distraction.
Nate Cohn arrived to explain: “There’s no contradiction between the polling and Tuesday’s election results. There’s not even a contradiction between the polling and the last year of special elections.”
Cohn wasn’t alone in making that case, but:
It’s possible that 2024 will be the exception, but the pundits—even the data pundits like Cohn—arguing for that likelihood need to take the track record a little more seriously. Actually, this is no time for sarcastic understatement: Make that a lot more seriously.
Not to be outdone by the Times touting its own polls, CNN ran with a poll analysis that appears to have been written before the elections with the assumption that they would signal trouble for Democrats. It seems like it was then hastily tweaked. It opens: “A big night for Democrats Tuesday in state races only highlighted the struggles Joe Biden faces in 2024 following polls suggesting he’s far less popular than his party.” A few paragraphs later, the article’s author, Stephen Collinson, details some of Tuesday’s big wins and offers up this skeptical admission: “This could mean polls are underplaying Democrats’ resilience under Biden, as they did in last year’s midterms when a Republican red wave was averted.” But you know there’s a “but” coming. It is of course a classic traditional media piece, swinging from but to but and always landing most decisively where it started, which is with the bad news for Democrats the morning after a set of big wins.
This is all of a piece with recent media coverage of the economy: Even the best economic news is reported as a political issue in tones of doom for Biden. As the Center for Economic Policy and Research put it, those stories “take advantage of the obvious fact that tens of millions of families are struggling in this economy, as is always true in the United States. The point here is that we have a terribly weak welfare state.” When Democrats are in power, those struggles suddenly become much more interesting to reporters.
It’s true that Biden does not look like a historically strong candidate, but the election is almost a year away. Right now, the media has to decide what matters more, analytically speaking: the results of elections that have already happened, which show Democrats on a historic roll, or polls of a distant election in which almost anything could change. It’s telling that they’re going with the less reliable source.
Just one word explains why Democrats had such a massive election night on Tuesday: abortion. On the newest episode of The Downballot, co-hosts David Nir and David Beard recap all the top races through the lens of reproductive rights, which continue to motivate Democrats and even win over a key swath of Republican voters. Nowhere was that more evident than in Ohio, which voted to enshrine the right to an abortion into the state constitution by a double-digit margin, despite countless GOP attempts to derail the effort.