Jeb Bush: After failing to impress in a “low energy” first debate, Bush took a hit in the polls. He dropped in polls by both Fox News and Quinnipiac after the second debate. And in the third debate, when he had pledged to come out swinging but was remembered mostly for a schooling at the hands of Rubio, he tumbled again. It didn’t take a genius to call out Bush as being on the losing end of either round, but the media got it right.
Donald Trump: So if the pundits were correct (at least in spots) in their diagnoses of Cruz, Rubio, and Bush, have they been getting too much guff for their blind spot when it comes to Carson? Let’s not be too hasty, because in the debates and beyond, there’s no candidate for whom political media predictions have missed as badly as they have with Trump. Six months ago, he was dismissed as a joke candidate. When he rocketed to the top of the field, pundits promised his popularity would suffer for saying Mexico was sending “rapists and drug dealers.” When that fall failed to actually happen, he was “surely” in trouble for mocking Sen. John McCain for getting captured during the Vietnam War. Then it was his face-off with Megyn Kelly in the first debate.
The list of media-issued campaign death certificates issued goes on, but after tuning out the noise, the voters’ verdict has been clear and consistent. Trump has been at—or at least very near—the top of the GOP field now for six months. Certainly, he may tumble eventually, but at this point, the journalists who correctly predict the timing of that one will look less like seers and more like stopped clocks who just happened to be right.
So what’s actually going on here?
In deference to humility, and given how deep we are into an article about how often the media gets it wrong, hopefully you’ll excuse us if we pass on drawing any absolute conclusions. Instead, here are a few possibilities for the media’s hits and misses in debate assessment.
One: Calling someone a winner in a debate does not necessarily mean predicting he or she will rise in the polls. After all, these candidates aren’t up on stage auditioning to become Mr. October—they’re looking to win their party’s primary. And at this stage, that may be less about getting a short-lived rise in the polls and more about impressing mega-donors (or just donors) who have the funds candidates need for the furious stretch run at the start of next year.
Two: If there’s a trend to be drawn, it’s that the Washington media does its most accurate work in assessing establishment candidates. The predictions were spot-on with Walker, appear to be nailing it thus far with Bush, and have decently predicted the paths of Rubio and Cruz. With nontraditional candidates like Carson and Trump, the press has been a mess. But is this all that surprising? Being a political reporter in Washington means spending a lot of time talking to members of the political establishment. That gives one a decent feel for assessing how mainstream Republicans would assess mainstream candidates. It’s useless, or even detrimental, to assessing how people on the party’s periphery of politics would assess candidates whose strength comes from their status as entirely outside the party.