If you have been anywhere near a TV or newspaper in the past month or so you know two things about Tuesday.
First, Democrats in this town think they can retake the House and possibly the Senate in Tuesday's elections. Republicans are conceding they are going to lose seats – the only question is whether they will lose control of either house of Congress.
Second, the principal reason for this is the war in Iraq. Somewhere around 60 percent of the American people do not feel it is going well and, at the very least, they want to punish the GOP for getting the nation into the war.
So there you go. If you are just tuning in now to the election at this very late date you are now brought up to speed. That hasn't been all of the coverage up to this point. There were some scandals – particularly on the Republican side. Regarding jail-bound superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and disgraced Rep. Mark Foley (R), there will be more to come, too. But if you just focus on the flipping of either or both houses and Iraq, you won't be far behind others who've been more election-centric.
Now before you think, "Oh boy, here comes another piece about how the media just covers the horse race," don't. This isn't one of those pieces. The media aren't wrong to focus on the horse race this year because the horse race is of some import in this case. If even one house flips, it will have a big impact on what happens in this town in the next two years.
The problem with the media coverage in 2006 has been the lack of context concerning what those changes – if they actually happen – would really mean.
People may be mad about Iraq and may want change there, but unless someone has secretly altered the Constitution, new leaders in either house of Congress won't mean much. Congress doesn't bring the troops home, the president does. True, Congress appropriates money for the fighting, but even if Democrats get control, denying money to the troops in Iraq is not probable when the war opponents' motto has consistently been, "Hate the war, support the troops."
So the ultimate impact on Iraq of a change in congressional control overall is fairly small.
That hasn't stopped the media from focusing on it, however. Running a few searches on Google News recently showed the intensity of the Iraq linkage. Searching over the past month for stories including the phrases "2006," "election," and "Iraq" turned up 6,450 hits.
The next-closest topic is "2006," "election," and "economy," which turned up 3,730. After that the focus was how the election was being waged – "2006," "election," and "ads" produced 2,210. Matching the words "2006" and "election" with other terms, such as "healthcare" or "environment" or even "immigration" (something of a hot-button issue in this election) created lists of even fewer stories, only 1,860, 1,530, and 1,450 stories, respectively.
Granted, that's not exactly a scientific approach to monitoring election coverage, but if you have watched or read any campaign stories during the past month you know those numbers aren't off base. Everyone wants to talk about Iraq.
It's not that Iraq isn't a real issue in this election. Polls do show that the war is a motivating factor for many voters. Once all the votes are tallied, however, the nation will get on with life after Election Day. That doesn't mean that Iraq will suddenly be out of the headlines. It won't.But here's a look at some of the other news items on the agenda for this week.
The United Nations Climate Control Conference began Monday in Kenya, focusing on global warming's impact on Africa.
On Thursday, President Bush will welcome Mexican President-elect Felipe Calderón to the White House. Mr. Bush has long had a good relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox – until the current flap over immigration, that is. The question now is where US–Mexican relations go from here.
Also on Thursday, a new set of trade balance figures will be released, as well as a new consumer sentiment index number, which measures how Americans feel about the economy. Going into the holiday season, that's a big issue.
In other words, there will be big stories on big issues – the environment, immigration, and the economy. At which point the press will probably take a look at what the new Congress, whatever it looks like, will mean to these things.
Better late than never, of course. But wouldn't it make more sense if the media tried to explain to voters what change would mean before people actually voted?
• Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.