Campaign premortem postmortem

So you want to know who's going to win, right? That makes sense, and it's only fair. You deserve something for sitting through Zell Miller's GOP convention speech and Bob Graham's monologue at the Democratic show.

Well, everyone in this town would love to tell you - it would allow them to start kissing up to the right people sooner. But the truth is, no one knows who's going to win. The 2004 campaign is different, full of complicated issues, and playing out before a divided, charged-up electorate.

That's the conventional wisdom and there's truth to it. We've never had a set of circumstances like this - war in Iraq, the constant threat of terrorism, an economy teetering along weakly - as an election unfolded. And don't forget the general uncertainty in the atmosphere. In the past week, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years and the nation's most hated enemy popped up on TV to poke his finger in the eyes of the two candidates - not an environment for accurate predictions. This White House race has actually been fairly typical - unfortunately the most conventional of unconventional races in terms of media coverage, mudslinging, and process. While the final hours of campaign 2004 tick away, let's do a premortem postmortem.

First, the media. By and large they covered "the most important election of our lifetime" the way they covered most others. Every four years we in the media talk about how we'll focus less on the horse race and more on issues. This year would've seemed to be a good opportunity to actually do that. The two men seeking the presidency offered decidedly different approaches on most issues voters say they care about. Yet coverage wound up offering the public more of the same. The organization for which I work, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, last week released a study of news coverage of the debate period. Among the findings: About three-quarters of the stories examined (print, network, cable, and Internet) primarily focused on how candidates were affected by events - who was up, who was down. Only 8 percent focused on the effect on citizens, such as the implications of the candidates' policy proposals - less than in 2000.

Second, the campaigns. Negative ads, the drops of vitriol that everyone says they despise, have worked well. In July and August, when the Kerry campaign was feeling good about its prospects, it was the negative ads of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that put the Bush campaign on more solid footing. In the closing days of the campaign, Sen. John Kerry's attacks against President Bush on Iraq and the economy seem to have strengthened his hand. You can rail against negativity all you want, you can talk about how the nation is different after 9/11, but in the end, attacks work and this race has been no different from past campaigns.

Third, the process. We're at the end of another divisive presidential race, and the decision about who'll lead a nation of 300 million people is again left in the hands of a few people in a few states - Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, and maybe Minnesota. In the biggest states - California, New York, Texas - voters will go to the polls knowing that their individual votes are largely unimportant. It's true that the Electoral College is written into the Constitution and the first candidate to reach 270 votes wins, but it doesn't need to be winner take all. Electoral votes could be given out proportionally, as Colorado is considering. How different would the campaign be if there was a difference between getting 40 and 45 percent of the vote in Texas? How many different issues might play a role if a candidate were trying to pick off some of California's 55 votes?

If we're fortunate, by Tuesday night we'll know who has won this thing. But beyond a clear, unchallengeable winner, I have one wish for this election - a mirror image (that's reversed) of the 2000 result. Seeing Mr. Bush win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College would create great drama and even better opportunities. Angry surrogates from both sides would run to the TV shout shows to espouse positions completely contradictory to those they held four years ago. Voters on both sides would understand where the others stood four years ago. Maybe we'd finally be willing to fix at least one consistent problem with US presidential races.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism.

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