This time, CNN and the other all-news networks had only two states, really, to cover. It was the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia that occupied the overwhelming majority of their air time Tuesday and Wednesday, and given how little they had to cover, it is amazing what a poor job they did.
They got right the fact that Chris Christie won in New Jersey and Terry McAuliffe won in Virginia. But that’s about it, despite the fact the states involved are next door neighbors to their major headquarters in New York City and Washington, D.C.
They only gestured at an actual news presence in either place, attending the rallies of the winners, otherwise resorting to lobbing tiresome and predigested “analysis” on both. Budgets are tight, we know, but this was appalling.
The worst, of course, was the canned assessments of the outcomes, none of which were grounded in the actual events on the ground (in the case of Virginia, settling for a reliance on sweeping generalities of the over-utilized and undeserving Larry Sabato).
Coverage stuck to pre-developed scripts in both elections: in New Jersey, Christie’s victory signals his emergence as a serious “moderate” GOP presidential candidate in 2016 and in Virginia, McAuliffe’s victory was “closer than expected” and due more to the perception that his opponent was too conservative rather than that there was anything positive about McAuliffe, himself.
These New York-conjured negative slams against McAuliffe did not relent. He was supposed to win by double digits, but among other deficiencies, growing unease and opposition to Obamacare caused his margin to shrink at the end, commentators insisted.
Republican commentators who masquerade as objective analysts on CNN – William Kristol being the worst case – painted a picture of a GOP at war with itself, with the “moderate” Republicans like Christie set against the Tea Party faction, more aligned with Ken Cuccinelli, who lost in Virginia.
While trying to sell the public on this false dichotomy, Kristol, for one, made it sound like Cuccinelli veritably won, given how many obstacles – the Tea Party ties, the anti-woman labeling, government shutdown impacts – were thrust at him.
But these were all story lines, not real news coverage.
In New Jersey, there was no mention of how Christie’s victory had no “coattails.” In fact, a referendum to raise the minimum wage there, a measure he vetoed as governor when it came to him as legislation last year, passed by a landslide margin.
Andrew Sullivan, one of the new electoral commentators on CNN who had something fresh to bring, noted repeatedly how egocentric Christie’s acceptance speech was. Far from being visionary, inclusive or proto-presidential, it was all about how Christie, himself, would fix everything. A rare break from the script.
In the case of Virginia, one would think no one from CNN had ever dared tiptoe across the Potomac, at least beyond Rosslyn. As with New Jersey, Virginia is so close to Washington, D.C. that spending some time there, or interviewing some knowledgeable experts there, other than Sabato, couldn’t have been that hard.
If they were doing real news, the news organizations would have learned that there was a lot of positive support for McAuliffe, notwithstanding their cartoonish caricatures. McAuliffe has an infectious personality that won over Democrats with tireless campaigning the last four years to break a decades-long trend in the state against following a presidential election with a vote for the same party the year after for governor.
That trend was such a force in 2009 that the magic of the 2008 Obama campaign, winning the state for a Democrat for the first time since 1964, could not break it. From the high point of the Obama victory, the Democrats went down to ignominious defeat in their gubernatorial race of 2009 as enthusiasm and turnout plummeted.
What made the difference this time was McAuliffe, himself. He failed to win the Dem gubernatorial nomination in 2009, but no sooner than that election was over that he began being the chief cheerleader and rabble-rouser for his party in every corner of the state.
He won over his party, and its momentum for breaking its post-presidential blues, too.