- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A veteran political consultant I talked to recently told me congressional electoral politics this September is like a roomful of hyperactive kids playing Whack-A-Mole at a Pepsi party. He said his frenetic July and August schedule — producing ads, analyzing polls and advising clients — felt like the election was only two weeks away. Everything’s happening earlier, quicker and more intensely. Living on cigarettes and Red Bull keeps your eyes wide open and the adrenaline pumping, but it seriously crimps life expectancy. Drug makers need to develop a form of Ritalin for political consultant stress.

The consultant isn’t the only one feeling the torrid pace of frontloaded congressional elections. Upon returning to Washington last week, GOP lawmakers faced a tempest of early electoral predictions and pronouncements forecasting their political demise. But while prophecy surely entertains at this point in the election cycle, these early predictions say more about the state of politics and the media than a rigorous analysis of November results. As for some media forecasts that crossed my desk last week, I’ll stick to chicken entrails and crystal balls — they are much more efficacious.

Maybe political reporters took an extended Labor Day break and one unlucky soul wrote all the copy for The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. All carried post-Labor Day stories with similar punch lines: Democrats are poised to take back the House. But to expand on what political analyst Chuck Todd wrote in Hotline about this week’s primary election in Rhode Island, maybe 2006 will be the “Mark Twain” election — where reports of Republicans’ demise were greatly exaggerated.

Many emphasized how Democrats had “expanded the battlefield” and that “more GOP seats were now in play.” The “news” however came as no shock to veteran Republican campaign operatives. “I kind of chuckled when I read those stories,” one top GOP strategist told me. “We know all those seats bear watching. Believe me, they are on the radar screen, our candidates know the challenges, and are working very hard. They are taking nothing for granted.”

So why the spate of doom and gloom stories this early? “I think a lot of folks in the media are covering their bases. They don’t want to be surprised like so many were in 1994. So this time, if the Democrats were to take back the House, they could say, ‘We called it,’” the consultant told me. Whether it’s covering their bases — or another part of their anatomy — the observation rings true. In a more competitive media world, the pressure to predict and forecast early is intense. “Labor Day normally signals the beginning of the campaign season, but a lot of the news coverage this year sounds like the campaign is over. More like postgame analysis than an election preview,” one former GOP leadership aide told me.

And when the pressure to predict early gets stirred into a frontloaded campaign cycle, it helps explains the quick transition from appetizer to dessert.

The value of conflict also shapes the current narrative. “GOP Likely to Hold House…Election Seen as Status Quo” isn’t a headline destined to sell reams of newspapers. It’s also hard to fill time on cable channels in a 24-hour news cycle if that’s the dominant message.

But despite the frenetic, early pace of campaign 2006, and the strong desire of the media to announce the outcome now, these races — unlike presidential contests — develop much more slowly. Voters probably won’t start focusing much until sometime in October. A lot of money remains unspent, and some big news events likely will still shape the environment.

The only real value of early predictions is in the hands of political operatives seeking to change momentum and move money on the margins. That already happened last week as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel used some early positive predictions for his party in a fundraising appeal.

But all these activities — from hind covering to hype — are consequences of a more competitive media environment and modern campaigns on warp speed, not rational analyses of elections on which few voters have yet to focus. This severe case of premature predictions syndrome among some in the media is a malady now exploited daily by Democrat political operatives. The pharmaceutical industry may not have a little blue pill for this yet, but I hope they’re working on it.

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