A Barometer Of More Than Just Politics

(AP Photo)
The results of the special election to take over the congressional seat of disgraced Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham are big news today. Why? It's the narrative, stupid: As more than one media outlet has gone out of its way to inform us, the election, which was won by Republican Brian Bilbray in a close race, is considered a "bellwether" for what's going to happen come Election Day in November. The "contest [is] seen as a gauge of voter attitudes for the national midterm elections," said the San Diego Union-Tribune in its lede. The race is "a possible early barometer of next fall's vote," declared the Associated Press.

To some extent, that's true – the race involved a number of the themes that will come into play in the midterms, most notably voter perception of Republican corruption. Already, both sides are trying to spin the results as good news for their side. I won't get into the specifics of all the critiques, but the general spin from the left is that the fact that the race was so close, despite the fact that the district is heavily conservative, is good news for Democrats. The right, on the other hand, counters that if Republicans can still win a race to replace Cunningham, a man who is presently sitting in jail, the Democrats' "culture of corruption" strategy is in trouble.

Let's put all that aside for the moment and focus on what's most interesting from a media perspective, however: The degree to which this race had a "wag the dog" quality. As Chris Bowers points out, Republicans spent $4.5M in committee money on the race in an effort "to change the media narrative on the election in their favor." And that, perhaps, is what's worth paying attention to: Not that Republicans spent a lot to win for the sake of the seat, but that they spent a lot to win in large part to manipulate the media.

They had their reasons. Look at the way the Washington Post and New York Times opened their stories on the result. The Post:

Republicans narrowly escaped a potentially demoralizing defeat in yesterday's special House election to fill the California seat vacated by jailed former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, blunting Democratic hopes of turning the contest into the first step toward a change of power in the House in November.
The Times:
A Republican former congressman slipped to victory in a special election here Tuesday, staving off what would have been a highly embarrassing Democratic victory in a solidly Republican district. National Republicans poured in nearly $5 million and nearly 200 campaign workers to help hold the seat for their party.
Presumably, had the race gone the other way, the stories would have been about Republican embarrassment and Democratic optimism – further pushing the dominant media narrative concerning the midterms in the Democrats' favor. And even in this day of media bashing and widespread contempt for the press, Republicans understand that losing control of the narrative can translate into losing a significant chunk of the electorate.

Are members of the press wrong to deem the race as a bellwether and read all sorts of things into the results? Not completely. The race does give us one more piece of evidence in trying to put together what's going to happen in the midterms. But when the parties are devoting so many resources to a race like this, you have to wonder if reporters are overreaching in their quest for a coherent political narrative. This was one small district, unlike any other, in which voters looked at specific candidates, not just political parties. There was an aberrant level of involvement from both national parties. Yes, it's useful for political watchers and media prognosticators too look at how the whole thing played out. But whatever predictive value it offers is dulled when the significance of the outcome is blown so dramatically out of proportion.