Handicapping Versus Reporting, Analyzing the Presidential Race

by Stuart Rothenberg June 21, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

As I’ve watched the first few months of the 2008 presidential race, I’ve been struck by how differently the race can be watched and evaluated.

Most print and television political reporters, along with their editors, are approaching the contests for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations as if they are color commentators of a baseball game. They evaluate every pitch, comment on every swing and discuss every possible thought that the batter, pitcher and manager may be having.

But if you are more concerned with who wins, or who will make the first cut, it’s far better to regard the two races as akin to an entire baseball season, starting with spring training and ending with a stretch run that really matters.

It’s not that the early games don’t count as much as the later ones, or that something significant can’t happen early on. A freak injury in spring training can have a huge impact on an entire season. But most spring training games don’t matter very much, which is why most baseball fans don’t follow them with any great urgency.

In point of fact, while every pitch is equally important in the sense that a pitch could result in a dramatic development — a home run that could win a game in May during a season ultimately decided by one victory — in reality, all pitches and all games are not of equal importance.

Of course, we can’t be sure which pitch or game mattered until we look back at the end of the season, but an at-bat in April simply doesn’t have the importance of one during a pennant race in the final weeks in September.

For political journalists, there are plenty of reasons to adopt the baseball game approach, which is why most have done so.

One of the jobs of reporters is to document the day’s news, and each and every day something happens during a campaign, even if one of those things is that nothing happens. Creating a record of the day goes to the core of the journalist’s role, so it isn’t surprising that reporters report on every utterance of a candidate on the campaign trail and comment during every debate.

The baseball game approach helps to boost readership and ratings. If everything matters, then readers and viewers need to stay on top of daily developments. Hype the story and, hopefully, you hype the attention that the public gives to the next news piece or article. This is one of the reasons why reporters look to create controversies or magnify disagreements. The baseball game approach makes each pitch (each day) a potential media bonanza.

The baseball game approach also keeps those of us in the reporting and analysis business in business. After all, if each pitch is important, it deserves to be reported, analyzed and argued about. That means reporters have to monitor and write about each pitch, and talking heads have to put each pitch in context and assess the impact of each pitch.

The handicapping approach adopts a longer-term perspective that places less emphasis on daily ups and downs. It places more emphasis on the voters and less on the actions of the candidates. It doesn’t ignore news, but it helps avoiding overreaction and hype.

The biggest news so far of this election year, apart from decisions by politicians such as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) about whether to run, has been the evolving primary schedule and the decision by a couple of Republican frontrunners not to participate in an Iowa GOP fundraising scheme called the Iowa straw poll.

Candidates have made news, some of which they would have rather not made. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) had an embarrassing encounter with questions about his hunting experience, while former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) had to deal with news and jokes about the cost of his haircuts. But while these kinds of news stories certainly help paint pictures of the candidates and ultimately can go a long way in creating the candidates’ public images, most of them have no lasting impact.

We have had a handful of debates already, and they really haven’t changed the political landscape. Yes, Edwards was aggressive in trying to portray Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as late to the anti-war position, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Romney had a dust-up in an early encounter. But few minds were changed by the debates, and more people learned about the debates by reading or listening to post-debate reporting and analysis than by watching the televised events.

Part of the problem, on the Democratic side, is that the top-tier and second-tier candidates all seem to hold the same positions. That means they end up arguing about who opposed the war first or who feels most passionately about it, not about substantive differences. Differences are primarily about style, not substance.

As I’ve noted before, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) looked dead in the water during the summer and fall of 2003, only to resuscitate his campaign in early January in Iowa, when Iowa caucus attendees started to evaluate the candidates with a different eye — an eye toward picking their nominee and the next president of the United States.

To the color commentator, Kerry was a non-factor in the fall of 2003 and had peaked six or eight months earlier. The story was about former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D). But to the handicapper, the race hadn’t really begun because Iowa voters hadn’t taken their most important look at the choices in front of them.

So if you are watching the 2008 race as a handicapper, you have a fundamentally different attitude than does the color commentator. Handicapping is less fun because it pays less attention to the daily goings-on, but it helps avoid being carried away by boomlets and guards against overinterpreting daily developments, many of which are entertaining but ultimately unimportant.