No, the Media Didn’t Screw Over Bernie Sanders in California

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Early predictions rarely have a significant impact on voter turnout.

By Jared Keller

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Bernie Sanders speaks at Barker Hangar on June 7, 2016, in Santa Monica, California. (Photo: Jonathan Alcorn/AFP/Getty Images)

On Election Day 1916, Charles Evans Hughes seemed poised for victory. With early voter returns suggesting that President Woodrow Wilson might lose to the one-time Supreme Court Justice, and with 254 electoral votes to his name, Hughes went to bed in his New York City hotel room. As presidential historian Anthony Bergen writes, the New York Times led the pack among many major newspapers who declared Hughes the winner before he’d locked up the Electoral College. But hours later, California, where ballots were still being counted when Hughes went to be, threw a wrench in Hughes’ victory celebration: The Golden State went to Wilson, in the process dealing Hughes a loss in his presidential bid. As Bergen tells it, a reporter appeared at Hughes’ hotel room early that morning only to be met by an ebullient staffer. “The President is sleeping,” the aide smiled, to which the reporter rebutted: “When he wakes up, tell him he is no longer President.”

Nearly a century later, California is again the home of an electoral fog, albeit on a lower scale. On the eve of California’s Democratic primary, the Associated Press and NBC News declared former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the presumptive Democratic nominee based on their ongoing tallies of formal delegates won in state contests and superdelegates likely to turn out at the Democratic National Convention in July. Senator Bernie Sanders and his fans, who have challenged Clinton at every turn, were infuriated. Superdelegates don’t matter until July, Sanders’ supporters said; it ain’t over until it’s over.

The media’s feedback loop with the body politic on the day polls are actually cast is far from an insignificant hiccup in the history of presidential politics. Thirty-six years after Hughes, the Chicago Tribune gifted American politics the delightful schadenfreude of “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” In 1964, the Big Three networks delivered early election predictions before the West Coast polls had closed for the first time in broadcast history. In 1980, NBC’s early projection of Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over President Jimmy Carter reportedly kept voters in Western states away from their polling places, convinced that voting was totally unnecessary. Four years later, following a minor public outcry and Congressional testimony on voter turnout, the network decided that it would now wait until all of the state’s polls had closed before crowning a candidate president-elect. While Sanders fans are raging against the pesky establishment media for “stealing” the Democratic nomination for Clinton, her own campaign remains worried that her presumptive nomination would have hurt her in California and elsewhere on primary day (spoiler: It didn’t).

There’s little conclusive evidence suggesting that early projections dramatically shift elections results.

The core issue is what legal scholars call the “illusion of simultaneity,” a phenomenon the Yale Law & Policy Review in 1984 described as a sense of “autonomy, anonymity, and fairness” created by mechanisms like secret ballots, a veil of ignorance designed to ensure that one vote “is in no sense dependent on another.” This illusion has become harder to maintain due to the structural and technological realities of the modern electoral college, like the rise of the predictive-industrial complex (and the associated decision desk) in broadcast news operations in the 1960s and state-by-state differences in poll-closing times, but it is, in some senses, shattered when a major media organization upstages the democratic process — as NBC did in 1980 and the Associated Press did on Monday.

As of now, there’s little conclusive evidence suggesting that early projections dramatically shift election results. Despite expert testimony before Congress in the aftermath of the 1980 election anecdotally claiming as much, a 1984 analysis of the impact of exposure on voter turnout found that barely 1 percent of survey respondents did not actually vote, even if they had intended to earlier, because of exposure to election broadcasts. In the case of Clinton and Sanders in California, the current (leveled by New York Daily News columnist Shaun King) suggests that the AP’s call absolutely tanked voter turnout among Democrats despite record-setting voter registration this election cycle. By King’s calculations, the AP’s call kept 1.3 million more people away from the polls than in 2008, a 28 percent drop. But that’s shaky evidence at best, especially since voter turnout among Democrats was already far below the historic twofer of the 2008 Barack Obama-Clinton contest.

Yes, it’s likely that the AP’s early call had an impact on the Democratic contest as far as heightening the tension between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, and reinforcing the latter’s narrative that the establishment is trying to “rig” the election. But Clinton beat Sanders 55.8 percent to 43.2 percent, with more than 400,000 voters. Any impact was not likely statistically significant. But, even so, the AP’s early call is a nice reminder to take a note from imaginary president Charles Hughes nearly a century ago: Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.

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