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The Globe Drops the Ball - by Jay Cost

The Boston Globe ran a story this week highlighting Democratic challengers in the Northeast. It claimed that the Democrats had prioritized 17 races from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire. The closing quotation indicates the tenor of the story:

"Said (Michael) Franc (vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation), ''We may wind up with the Northeast just as Democratic as the South is Republican right now.""

This story is, I think, a great example of how the media fails to provide accurate coverage of congressional elections. The Globe provides a list/map of the 17 districts.

Take a look at it, noting in particular PA 18.

It is in the wrong spot. That is actually PA 11 -- a district the Democrats already control.

PA 18 is actually a southern suburban district of Pittsburgh. It includes Mt. Lebanon, Moon Township, Monroeville and Washington, PA. It is nowhere near the place where the Globe says it is.

To quote Gob Bluth: "Come on!"

More than this, though, the story fails to mention how the Democrats have had a very difficult time recruiting candidates in many of these districts. PA 18 is actually a great example of the problem. The DCCC worked hard to get Barbara Hafer - former State Treasurer and Republican-turned-Democrat - to run against Tim Murphy, the Republican representative of the district. She declined. They even tried to recruit Stan Savran - a local sports reporter. No go. Ditto for George Matta - Allegheny County Clerk of Courts. Who is running against Murphy? A telecommunications executive and an insurance company loss engineer.

With this kind of competition, Murphy is breathing a big sigh of relief. He is probably having a good chuckle about this story, too. It must be news to him that he does not represent the Pittsburgh suburbs, but rather the wilderness between Philadelphia and Scranton!

In fact, of those 17 targeted districts the Globe mentions, the Democrats have put up real contenders in only about 8 of them. At this point, they stand a reasonable chance of victory in about 5 of them (and they will not get all 5, either). Thus, accidentally of course, the Globe indicates one of the biggest problems the Democrats face this year. To retake the House, the Democrats need to put up a good fight in all 17 of these districts. They seem to be doing half of what they need to do.

Districts like PA 18 "should" be on the table for them. It went only slightly for Bush in 2004, it has a strong base of Democratic support in Washington and Westmoreland counties, and Republican supporters in places like Mt. Lebanon are precisely the ones pundits think are trending away from the GOP. Unfortunately for the Democrats, it is off the table - simply by virtue of recruitment failures.

This Globe story is unique in its sloppiness, for sure. It is hard to mistake Luzerne, Pa for Pittsburgh, Pa. I do think, however, the mistake with the map is indicative of the general problem that major news outlets have with covering these races: everything looks the same to them. From the Globe's perspective, PA 11 and PA 18 are indistinguishable. Nobody in the Globe's bureau knew enough about either district to pipe up and say, "Hey! Ya got that wrong, pal!" Similarly, nobody knows enough to comment intelligently on whether the Democrats stand a reasonable shot in any of the districts in question. They are just ignorant of the nuances of this topic.

The media's response to this information problem has not been to send a copy editor out to pick up a copy of the 2006 Almanac of American Politics and spend some time researching the districts. The response, rather, has been to develop what I would call The 2006 Template for when Bush's Numbers are Down. You take one party's spin about the election as the baseline for the story. Quote the DCCC at length, toss in a quote from a professor at some local school, toss in another quote or two from nervous Republican-types, and you got yourself a story about '06!

When Bush's numbers go back up, you just use the handy 2006 Template for when Bush's Numbers are Up. This time, you take the RCCC's spin as the baseline. Quote a bunch of Democrats who think their party is blowing it worse than Chamberlain at Munich, toss in a quote from a professor at some local school, and you got yourself a story about '06!

Apparently, it is asking too much of reporters covering the congressional races to actually learn a thing or two about the races that they are covering before they report on them. All we can expect is either of these templates and a failure to distinguish Southwestern from Northeastern Pennsylvania. We must be satisfied with the press using partisan spin as the foundation for unquestioning, vacuous, factually sloppy stories about the election.