The Breakfast Table

What Will Be the Outcome?

Dear John,

Given all the e-mails we have sent back and forth over the last few years in writing The Way to Wintogether and in covering politics for news organizations that poll together, it seems somewhat arbitrary to let the vast Slate reading audience into the mix with one week to go before the election, but so be it.

One week out is when I start to be concerned about how to cover everything at once. I dashed up to Stamford, Conn., over the weekend to watch a rally for embattled Republican incumbent House member Chris Shays, at which John McCain was the featured speaker. That was likely my last trip off of the island of Manhattan before Election Day. Shays is typical, in the sense that he has been a Democratic target all election cycle, but less typical because he is not running that much on issues but on this amorphous sense that he is a man of honor and integrity who will work across the aisle. The Iraq war clearly is weighing heavily on him, and if he loses, I have no doubt he will blame his fate on a war on which he seems to have soured at a rate too slow for his constituents.

In terms of the outcome overall, I’m right where I was last week: The most likely outcome is still that Democrats take the House and barely miss taking the Senate. I’m still torn on a related point: Should I donate $25 to charity every time someone asks me to predict what is going to happen, or eat a piece of unagi?

I’ll never understand why so many people want to ask me (and others) to predict the outcome. Granted, in theory, I should have a more informed opinion than most, but the contours of the possible outcomes (Dems take the House narrowly and not the Senate; Dems take the House big and narrowly miss the Senate; Dems take the House big and just take the Senate; Rove Miracle 4.0) are pretty clear, and anyone with Internet access can read most of the same polls and expert analysis I see.

It is a sign of either my having done this for too long or of my cultivation of Yoda-like calm that I am just not that desperately curious about the outcome. If you told me I couldn’t see the exit polls until much later than usual (more on that later this week …), I would be fine with it. Other people we know—not so much.

The networks don’t spend anything like they used to on covering elections, but we still have as many resources as anyone else devoted to trying to hold the candidates and campaigns accountable to the public interest. But it isn’t easy. Even with all the modern technology out there, tracking new television ads is merely really, really hard while tracking radio ads, church fliers, and those robo-calls that come at the very end is nearly impossible. And once you get a hold of the content, figuring out how to truth-squad the item, and then report it in context, is among the toughest tasks in daily journalism.

What most amazes—and discourages—me right now is that the mood of both the politicians and the electorate seems so angry. Sure, there is a lot to be unhappy about in a country at war, and that has a lot of people feeling like the nation is on the wrong track, but this level of vitriol seems excessive and a bit scary.

I don’t really mind negative ads or messages—in part because there is nothing that the press can do about them, in part because they often have useful information in them, and in part because if voters want to be swayed by them, they will get the government they deserve.

What I don’t like is false negative messages. Those, I think, are just bad for the electoral process.

So, John, what is the Washington Post doing to make sure it helps voters know which messages in the last week are false (assuming you think that that is a proper postmodern role for the Old Media to play), and if you had your budget doubled, what additional things would you do?

All my best as I head off to finish working on The Note with my other hand.

Your friend and co-author,