The usual first complaint about campaign news coverage is the constant fixation with the horse race and the absolute dominance of the polls. And yet, can there be a time for complaining polls aren't reported enough? If you're following the only Senate race in America - in the eyes of the press - the answer is yes.
Reporters virtually threw word-processed flower petals in Hillary Clinton's path when she decided to emerge as an unprecedented First Lady non-candidate for the Senate in New York. They touted her intimidating popularity. First-blush polls showed the First Lady crushing potential rival Rudy Giuliani. "Once a political lightning rod, today she is political lightning," murmured Dan Rather.
It looks now that lightning's fizzling fast, which might explain why you're no longer hearing much about polls. On November 1, The New York Times placed its latest joint poll with CBS News on the front page, but look what it found to be news. "Poll Finds Few Undecided," the ho-hum headline read. Voter certainty in this early stage of the race may be interesting, but was it the poll's most newsworthy finding?
Check out the poll results submerged down in paragraphs five and ten. Since the last New York Times-CBS poll in March, Hillary went from a nine-point lead among likely voters (50 to 41 percent) to a five-point disadvantage (44 to 49 percent). That's a fourteen-point slide, and if most voters consider themselves decided on this race, those numbers are dramatic.
The buried shockers didn't end there, though. In paragraph 21, the Times revealed that Hillary's approval rating had dropped from 52 percent to 37, and her disapproval numbers jumped from 22 to 38 percent. In other words, she's regressed from a 30-point chasm between lovers and haters, where more than half of the polling sample approved, to where more voters now disapprove of her than approve. That's not good news, especially -again - if the voters are decided on the matter. (Giuliani's favorables and unfavorables both increased slightly.)
So where were the TV anchors furrowing their brows and wondering out loud what went wrong? CBS News may have created and paid for the poll, but they weren't reporting the results, and neither was hardly anyone else. Dan Rather must have been straining for another hurricane to cover.
Maybe that poll's a fluke. But the latest poll from Quinnipiac College also came with dark clouds for Democrats. Earlier this year, Hillary led Rudy in this poll by 54 to 36 percent; now Giuliani is ahead, 47-42. That's a swing of 23 points. When some of the media's political specialists examined the X-rays, they tried to downplay the hemorrhage without getting painfully specific. On CNN's "Inside Politics," anchor Judy Woodruff simply referred to "a major change from February when she was ahead." On CNN's "Late Edition, host Wolf Blitzer put Hillary's best face forward with his spin: "It's been going back and forth. It's a pretty close race right now."
Certainly, no one can suggest that the polling drop was caused by negative media coverage. Much like the polling bashfulness, reporters are trying to soften the blow of any Hillary campaign gaffes.
Look no further than the First Lady's November 11 kissy-kissy in the Middle East with Mrs. Yasser Arafat, who stood at a lectern by Mrs. Clinton in Ramallah and declared that the Israelis used poison gas to kill Palestinian women and children. In the face of this baseless slander, Mrs.Clinton hugged and kissed Mrs. Arafat, then waited 12 hours to say anything critical of her poison-gas tirade. The press corps that breathed fire over Ronald Reagan's Bitburg cemetery itinerary surely should have suggested at least a flaming faux pas in Hillary Clinton's solicitous silence.
Instead, it was time for the spin machine to come out.
Newspaper headlines pussy-footed gingerly on this toxic terrain. "Mideast Web Entangles First Lady," claimed a vanilla Washington Post. "Challenged in the West Bank," whispered a vague USA Today. The next day wasn't any better. "First Lady Criticized After Palestinian's Remarks," wrote the Post. USA Today returned to horse-race analysis: "Clinton Finds Playing Dual Role a Stretch: Goals of First Lady, Candidate Can Conflict. "The New York Times front page read simply "First Lady's New Campaign Worries." But my favorite headline came from The Boston Globe, with Orwellian overtones: "In Mideast, Mrs. Clinton Shies from Controversy."
How many reporters would have leaped to their laptops with savage headlines if Mrs. Arafat had received a hug and a kiss from Nancy Reagan? Maybe the press is silent because they've seen Hillary's latest polls, and are desperately seeking to prevent making a bad political situation even worse.