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The press should put away its crystal ball

Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks to supporters with his family during an election night party on November 9, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fetterman defeated Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman speaks to supporters with his family during an election night party on November 9, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Fetterman defeated Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

No Red Wave. No Blue Graveyard. The press and prognosticators got it wrong.

Again.

New Hampshire did not embrace extremist Republicans who called the Biden presidency illegitimate and Social Security unsustainable. Don Boldoc’s challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan — the race that pundits kept calling “tougher-than-expected” — collapsed with a convincing Hassan win.

Pennsylvania did not prefer a celebrity carpetbagger selling snake oil to a stroke survivor promising to take voters and public policy seriously. Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won a decisive Election Day victory over Dr. Mehmet Oz, despite predictions that “election officials may have to spend days counting mail-in ballots.”

Michigan did not reject incumbent Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for emphasizing abortion rights instead of the economy in her re-election bid. Voters not only returned her to office; they amended the state constitution to protect abortion rights.

Alaska did not cement a lasting legacy for Sarah Palin as a histrionic role model for Republican women. Not only was Palin lagging badly Wednesday in her bid to replace the incumbent Democrat in Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat, her gun-toting doppelganger Lauren Boebert of Colorado was clinging to her own chance at re-election to the House. That widely reported New Hampshire poll last week that had 25-year-old Trump mouthpiece Karoline Leavitt moving ahead of incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas? He handily won a third term.

Continued reliance on our cracked crystal balls will only undermine the limited credibility journalism still retains with the American people.

Now, astoundingly, after voters have spoken, they are being subjected to a fresh round of political analysis by the very pundits who just blindingly misread them. “How the GOP Wave Became a Ripple,” the New York Times purports to explain, ignoring the obvious: there was no “GOP wave.” Instead of admitting that its polls and its man-on-the-street interviews misread the mood of the country, the Times tells us that the winners “defied expectations” despite “fundamental conditions for Democrats [that] seemed dire.”

Whose expectations? Seemed dire to whom?

Yes, voters are worried about inflation and not totally enamored of President Joe Biden, but maybe they are also smart enough to know that a global economic challenge is not within the total control of the occupant of the White House. Yes, the president’s party often has fared badly in midterm voting, but the endless repetition of that fact sounded less like reportage this fall than prophecy.

Here’s an idea for journalists: get out of the business of prognostication and speculation. We have proven time and again that we are really bad at predicting what voters are going to do (see 2016 and 2020) and at identifying which issues will prove paramount on Election Day. See endless stories this cycle about how inflation, more than the loss of abortion rights or the threat to democracy posed by election deniers and insurrectionists, would be pivotal to voters. Wrong.

Continued reliance on our cracked crystal balls will only undermine the limited credibility journalism still retains with the American people.

It is hard to be optimistic. We are addicted to speculation. What will happen in the runoff election for the U.S. Senate in Georgia between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and GOP challenger Herschel Walker? If Republican TV personality Kari Lake loses the race for governor of Arizona to Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs will she challenge the results? And, of course, will Trump announce a new presidential bid? If so, where will it happen? When will it happen? Will a gold-plated escalator be involved? Will Melania be there?

Let’s wait, shall we, to see what happens.

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Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
Eileen McNamara is an emerita professor of journalism at Brandeis University. The author of a biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, she won a Pulitzer Prize as a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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