BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Kerry has won 15 out of 17 states in his quest to be the Democratic nominee for president. Well yes, and no. In the presidential election you win states. In the primaries you win delegates. But still the news reports talk about Clark winning Oklahoma when really, he picked up one more delegate than second place finisher John Edwards. It's just one of the things that brings former OTM producer-at-large Mike Pesca here to talk about the press coverage of the primaries. Mike, welcome back.
MIKE PESCA: Thanks, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've been on the campaign trail covering the primaries for NPR's Day to Day. What do you think?
MIKE PESCA: Well, you're right. The press usually gets beat up for covering horserace and not policies, so let's take a moment to talk about, well you know they're making some mistakes when they're covering the horserace as well. Let me read just a line from the Chicago Tribune the day after the Wisconsin primary. It talks about how John Edwards has clearly established himself as the alternative to the frontrunner, John Kerry. It says: "They don't give trophies for second place in politics." Yeah, but they do give delegates. So the newsrooms across America all have the map of the country, with states that light up in different colors, but you can't really use those colors for a primary, because in Wisconsin all John Kerry won was 6 more delegates than John Edwards. That was Kerry's exact margin of victory as in Washington, DC, and people didn't really pay that much attention to that particular vote.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do my think the media should be doing?
MIKE PESCA:Well, I think there could be a delegate tote board in all the newsrooms. Tim Russert can go with the retro dry erase board which he used during the 2000 election, and they shouldn't cover it like a horserace. They should cover it like a golf major.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A golf major. [LAUGHS]
MIKE PESCA:Yeah, well, you, you don't say Tiger Woods won hole 3. You don't say even Tiger Woods won on Saturday. You say that Tiger Woods is 3 strokes ahead. It's always a cumulative process. During the New Hampshire primaries I asked Paul Begala of CNN, who of course helped Clinton get elected, if there was too much emphasis placed on early contests merely because of their symbolism.
MIKE PESCA: Is it a little like covering the first inning of the World Series exclusively?
PAUL BEGALA: No, it's like covering the first game of the World Series. It matters a lot. Whoever wins here has an enormous leg up on being the next president.
MIKE PESCA: But on election night in Wisconsin, Jennifer Palmieri, who's communications director for the Edwards campaign, made this analogy.
JENNIFER PALMIERI: If this were a baseball game, it would be the top of the third inning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you would agree with Palmieri, then, that it's an inning rather than a game, or, or maybe not a game at all.
MIKE PESCA: Well, inning or game, it's an early part of the process. Really anyone can win this election. That's not just a member of the media desperately hoping that there's a close race. It's really and truly not a done deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But let's say the horserace were being put in its proper perspective. Don't you think there still should be a little less of it?
MIKE PESCA: Yeah. I mean there's no question about that, but the reason why the horserace is so legitimate is because it really is a tight race, and also because a lot of aspects of the horserace do tell us a lot about where we are as Americans -- I mean the way people campaign, and whenever you do campaign, you raise issues, so you could say that Edwards did well in Wisconsin -- so far it's horserace -- because he emphasized trade and Nafta --now you're talking about policy. And a lot of the stories have the blend of both of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:As you mentioned, the media have been caught a little flat-footed when it comes to predicting the horserace. They anointed Howard Dean rather early, and now Edwards had the opportunity for the great line that "objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear." How did the media miss him? Were they talking on the cell phone while driving?
MIKE PESCA: I think this is an entirely poll-driven phenomenon that they missed the Edwards surge. What happened was, he got endorsed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel rather late in the campaign. They couldn't take a poll which took into account that endorsement, and the big thing that happened was he felt he did very, very well in the debate. But the debate happened on a Sunday. Polls that were released on Monday really couldn't take it into account, and so it still looked like oh, Kerry is going to crush Edwards. But it's just that all the good things that happened for Edwards happened too late, and Edwards wound up doing well. Edwards usually does better than the polls indicate on election day somehow. That's something to look into.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Yeah, it's something for campaign reporters, I would guess, to look into, especially if the latest polls are three days before the vote, and in many states the heat of the campaign lasts a week. That means the polls miss almost half the campaign.
MIKE PESCA: Right. The Zogby poll in Wisconsin came out the day before the vote, so it seemed cutting edge, but it surveyed people from February 12th to 15th. It came out February 16th, and the vote was February 17th, so it really missed the important things in the campaign that people used to decide on who to vote for.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's the next big moment to watch out for?
MIKE PESCA:Well everyone's looking for two weeks from now Super Tuesday as the contest that'll settle it all, but you know the John Edwards people say actually we're going to do a lot better -there are big states like Florida that vote the week after Super Tuesday, so let's not think that even if John Kerry wins 8 out of 10 states on Super Tuesday that it's all over. I would just urge anyone to just look at the delegate count. That's all you have to do. If the networks don't put it up, it's out there on the web, perhaps On the Media dot org can link to that too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] All right.
MIKE PESCA: Yes. [LAUGHS] I forced you into that one. But that should really be the story of the campaign, and forget about the number of states and forget about stories about who has momentum. You need 2,161 delegates to get the nomination, and until you're there, you don't have the nomination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Pesca is a correspondent for NPR's program Day to Day. Thanks for deigning to visit us again, Mike.
MIKE PESCA: It was great. Bye, Brooke.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, grim views of the media in a new play by Tim Robbins, and by quantitative analysis.