BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Every week there are bombshells, this week there were bombs.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: At least 10 packages of it sent to people who are frequently singled out by criticism by the president.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The FBI has confirmed another package, 11th found last night in Florida.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This is now the 12th package that's been recovered and it has all of the hallmarks–that, that are believed to be a serial suspected bomber. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: An ardent Florida a Trump supporter was arrested on charges of mailing pipe bombs to the pantheon of demonized liberals. Obama, George Soros, the Clintons among them. Plus the headquarters of CNN. None of the bombs detonated but clearly, people were very shaken up live on the TV.
JIM SCIUTTO: That means they were explosive devices and to have projectiles. I mean, that is a–
JIM SCIUTTO: –excuse me that sounds like a fire alarm here. We'll keep you posted on that.
POPPY HARLOW: Ok, we're going to jump in, there's a fire alarm here.
JIM SCIUTTO: You might have heard it in the background. We're going to find out what the latest here at CNN.
POPPY HARLOW: We're going to be right back.
JIM SCIUTTO: We're going to be right back.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A minute later CNN anchors Poppy Harlow and Jim Sciutto were evacuating CNN's New York headquarters along with hundreds of employees tourists and New Yorkers from neighboring buildings. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: It was chaotic but once the bomb squads wrapped up everybody defaulted to their inevitable rolls. Donald Trump after first offering a boilerplate condemnation of political violence immediately retreated to blaming the obvious culprits.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What is the first statement the president makes about this today is to attack the media. He says, 'a very big part of the anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the mainstream media that I refer to as fake news. It has gotten so bad and hateful that this is beyond description. Mainstream media must clean up its act fast.'.
BOB GARFIELD: Which blame-shifting rhetoric led to charges that the president himself incited violence with his constant vilification of Democrats in the press.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So if you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you. Seriously.
CHRIS CUOMO: The last few days he's been calling for hatred toward exactly the groups and individuals that were just targeted.
BOB GARFIELD: CNN's Chris Cuomo.
CHRIS CUOMO: When he comes out and says we need to be civil, there is no apology needed to say, it doesn't ring quite true. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: In short order, the speculation and accusation were reduced to right versus left. Notably and an explanation that surprised absolutely no one, the conspiracy crowd from Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter to Gateway Pundit to Lou Dobbs, blamed Democrats for a false flag operation supposedly aimed at discrediting the right in advance of the midterm elections.
MICHAEL SAVAGE: I will repeat, it's a high probability, that the whole thing is set up as a false flag to gain sympathy for the Democrats. Number one and number two to get our minds off the hoards of illegal aliens approaching our southern border. Yes, that is what I'm saying.
BOB GARFIELD: That was Michael Savage. This from Fox News.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This doesn't necessarily mean that someone is espousing some sort of conservative ideology and targeting Democrats, it could be someone who is trying to get the Democratic vote out and incur sympathy. So, you know–
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: That's an interesting point.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: –it could go either way. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And from the right-wing pundit Candice Owens this, now deleted tweet, quote, 'these leftists are going all out for midterms.' Remember when things happened and it was reported about as an event? That was called news. Now, we have only points of departure for the discussion of political implications. With November 6th coming in the balance of congressional power at stake, why sweat the facts. There are narratives to compare and electoral advantage to parse. It's been true of the bombs, it was true of Jamal Khashoggi's murder at the hands of our Saudi allies. It's true of the Honduran migrant caravan. As the president prepared to both send troops to the Mexican border and halt the asylum process, The New York Times observed that his posturing was taking place quote 'only days before the midterm elections.' More of the same on NBC News.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: What does the rhetoric that the president is invoking when it comes to this migrant caravan? What types of voters is it going to turn out or even turn? [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Because we, the media, also default to our assigned role. And we can't resist our impulses either.
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BOB GARFIELD: Yes at election time the press seems less like an institution than an amalgamation of our own quirks. A biennial witness to this was Claire Malone of FiveThirtyEight, who pours over both the media coverage and the polls themselves. I asked her apart from seeing all human events through an electoral prism, what other tropes noticed this time around.
CLAIRE MALONE: I think that there have been certain states that perhaps have been overcovered in this election or maybe the candidates' odds have been amplified beyond what we would sort of give them from a, I guess a statistical look.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Politico writes, 'Texas has Beto-mania,' Esquires says,'He could be the next Obama.' Vanity Fair calls him 'Kennedy-esque.' [END CLIP]
CLAIRE MALONE: It's obviously an interesting election because he has, as a Democrat, garnered a lot of enthusiasm in a deeply red state. And for people looking at the demographics of that state and looking to see people aging into voting whose parents were immigrants perhaps–I'm thinking of a Latino population in that state–so it's interesting for Democrats to see O'Rurke doing well. But honestly, I mean, somewhere like Tennessee–which is another deeply red state–Phil Bredesen who is running as a Democrat there, is the former governor of the state. And I would say that the Democrats' chances in that state are much better than they are in Texas. So we have a little bit of a natural inclination towards a sexy headline, a telegenic candidate like O'Rourke. I did a piece on him a couple of weeks ago and, you know, in my lede I talked about the number of times he's been compared to a Kennedy. People like assigning stories like that but then you also have to say 'well let's talk to people about the actual demographics of Texas and whether or not he has as good of a chance as people might be getting the impression that he does.'
BOB GARFIELD: In this, the #MeToo era, one of the earliest narratives attached to the midterms, was the year of the woman.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: We're doing a wonderful kind of documentary story about what's now being called the Year of the Women.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: It's being called a seismic shift, a record number of women running for elected office.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: There are a total of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 Democratic women in the race. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The last time that narrative was so pronounced was in 1992, when in fact the number of women in the House increased by double digits.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Is this the year of the women–plural for Democrats. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: So what is, in fact, taking place according to your numbers in 2018?
CLAIRE MALONE: So there are 238 women running in total, so 186 Democrats and 52 Republicans. Basically, we determine if every woman who's currently leading in a district were to end up winning there would be 100 women in the House and 24 in the Senate. And that is an increase from the current count which is a 107 total women in Congress. But I think we also have to note that some of those women will lose their races. And so the percentage of women holding seats in Congress might actually not change all that much. On the other hand, a lot of these women who were running in primaries, in particular, because of this anti-Trump sentiment that was sweeping the country, were first-time candidates, right? And what we do know is that the more comfortable that people get within the political system may be the more likely they are to do better the next time. So while they might have lost this primary, they might have a better grasp of local donors in their district, who to go to and hire the next time they run a campaign. So while the percentage of women in Congress may or may not shift in 2018, it could have effects in the next couple of election cycles but I think there's a difference between women running and women actually winning the seats and it being a quote-unquote year of the woman.
BOB GARFIELD: A handful of special elections that have taken place over the last year have been characterized as a referendum on Trump.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: –on the fact that he doesn't represent most Americans, that his values don't line up with most Americans. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: How do you see the numbers on the Trump question so far?
CLAIRE MALONE: In quite a few races, candidates are leaning in and–even if they don't cite Trump's name in their ads–their ads are kind of Trump-y.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take them home myself. [END CLIP]
CLAIRE MALONE: They might say 'build the wall,' or 'we're going to deport illegals.'.
BRIAN KEMP: I'm Brian. If you want a politically incorrect conservative that's me. [END CLIP]
CLAIRE MALONE: I think the reasons why some of these Republican candidates are perhaps trying to keep an arm's length distance from Trump is because there are certain traditional constituencies that are turned off by the president. Say college-educated white women who might be a sort of punchable entity for Democrats. So the thing that people should keep in mind is, is midterm elections–even if the president isn't coming up in every single commercial that you see on TV that's a political ad–voters are inherently thinking about what is going on in the White House in every election not just with Trump's election. And you react to it and you say, 'oh I like this guy and I like his party' or 'I don't like this guy and I don't like his party' and that might influence your vote.
BOB GARFIELD: Elephant in the room, one might say?
CLAIRE MALONE: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Here's a little something else one might say.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: This November election is more important than any midterm in our lifetime. The stakes they couldn't be–.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Every single election is portrayed as the most important election of all time. I will say for the 2018 midterm elections, it really is the most important election of all time. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: So do your numbers suggest a turnout that reflect the most important election of our lifetimes.
CLAIRE MALONE: You're seeing pretty enthusiastic numbers from people saying like, 'yes I'm very pumped to vote, pumped to turn out.' And I think particularly on the Democratic side in certain races, they're hoping that Democratic turnout will kind of push them over the edge in states that are either purple or are red tilting but voted for Trump in the election. So turnout is certainly an important factor in any election but in midterm elections in particular because they are typically lower turnout elections. And so these interesting pre-election surveys we're seeing people be enthusiastic makes us think, 'oh this might actually be on both sides of the aisle a pretty engaged mid-term election.'.
BOB GARFIELD: The early voting numbers are way up.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Collin County. Today's number exceeded the 2016 presidential election and shattered the turnout number for the last midterm election.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In North Carolina, the first five days saw more votes cast than in 2016. Same thing in Minnesota. The secretary of state there said the level of participation is quote, 'off the charts.'.
BOB GARFIELD: And that has been widely interpreted as suggesting that there is a, you know, ongoing insurgency among Democrats. Is there any evidence that the uptick in early voting is good news for Democratic candidates?
CLAIRE MALONE: The very short answer is no. Early voting numbers are something that partisans and political operatives and campaigns really like to cite in the weeks coming up to the election as 'look at this groundswell of support that we're seeing.' But ultimately, they don't tell us much about who is going to be the ultimate winner of an election.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, in previous elections, there's always been so much focus on October surprises. And this election, just in the last week or so has offered three such October surprises. The plummeting stock market, the bombs being sent to a number of Democrats and the media and other critics of the president and the caravan–the Central American caravan working its way up through Mexico to the border. Are your numbers showing that these episodes are having any effect on the electorate?
CLAIRE MALONE: Well, we don't have any numbers on the effect that these events have at all. So we can't say. What I would say was probably the October surprise was the Kavanaugh hearing. That is something that left people with lingering strong feelings. You know, I'm not quite sure what's going to happen with these bombing attempts over the next couple of weeks. I'm not sure what's going to happen with the caravan. Those two stories are really moving ones and we don't have any real data yet to point and say, 'ah yes this has had an effect.' You know perhaps we'll know the week before the election. Trump is certainly trying to use the caravan to Republican advantage, although that's a sort of double-edged sword for him because you might make an already enthused Democratic electorate more enthusiastic by I guess baiting them on that issue. And Democrats we know have gotten much more liberal on immigration. So I guess the short answer is we just don't know how the electorate is reacting to those things.
BOB GARFIELD: So I guess one final question.
CLAIRE MALONE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Does any of this matter? Are there still many minds not made up? And of those minds not made up are they going to go to the polls in the first place? Do we have any idea of what would happen if the election were today?
CLAIRE MALONE: Well, I would say, even in the incredibly partisan year that is 2018, yes there are still many people whose minds are not made up. There are moderate voters who are perhaps displeased with the current administration and who Democrats and Republicans have to make plays for either by saying, 'give the middle finger to the White House,' or, 'come on home, you know that the Republican Party is where your true views lie.'
BOB GARFIELD: Claire, thank you very much.
CLAIRE MALONE: Of course. Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Claire Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the caravan. Not an invasion, an exodus. This is On the Media.