Press Talk: Of influence & predictions

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian editor

Published:

 

The election

As the election results sink in and we begin to move toward governing, it's good to take a peek back and ask: Why do candidates win elections?

Pretty simple, really. Winning candidates have a good vision and an ability to get that vision in front of voters.

But it gets tricky — even a little difficult — when a candidate tries to execute that last part: Getting that vision in front of voters.

No question that money plays a role. The more money you have, the more advertising you can buy to get your message out.

Still, what has always been a critical factor in elections is newspaper coverage. Smart politicians know that smart voters know advertising is what it is: A controlled message that rarely tells the whole story.

So voters rely on what they read in a newspaper. Now, most of what voters see in a newspaper is stories. They are objective and do the best job they can telling both sides of a story.

But in both editorials and columns, voters get something else. They get opinions.

Nowadays, you get considerable chatter out there on the Internet about how worthless newspaper opinions are. They will either tell you no one pays attention to newspaper opinions or — worse — they pay attention and actually vote the opposite way.

Really?

I went back and took a look at some of the things I said in my column about the recent election. (Warning, self-promotion coming!)

First, the freeholders election. It was terribly confusing, with 100 candidates running. Our editorial board opted not to endorse candidates. But I offered up four names in my column that I liked: Garry Lucas, Ann Rivers, Temple Lentz and Jim Mains. They all won.

In a city council race between long-time incumbent Jeanne Stewart and newcomer Alishia Topper, I said Topper was a bright, enthusiastic, knowledgeable challenger running an aggressive campaign. I went on to say, "The city might just be in need of a fresh perspective. And Topper would deliver that." Topper won.

In the mayoral race, I had been banging on Mayor Tim Leavitt for years to say he screwed up. On what? He came out during his first campaign against tolling a proposed Columbia River Crossing bridge then changed his mind once he was elected. I wrote that he needed to get this bridge issue behind him. Then, a few weeks before the election, he told our editorial board, "I was wrong." I wrote that that was the help he likely needed. Leavitt won.

Again, candidates' actions win races, not views coming from us. But to suggest our views hurt candidates is just silly. Check this email from a J.B., who said this after I wrote about Topper: "Simply by your story I bet she wins. Your piece gets her in." Not really, but thanks.

Or this email: "I think you'll be happy to hear that … loves your column because you are unbiased and give good information about the candidates so she feels like she doesn't have to read that ridiculously long pamphlet that is mailed out with the ballots."

Again, candidates win or lose based on what they do, but a good word in a newspaper will do you no harm.

Predictions

Now, making bad predictions, on the other hand, could do the predictor some harm. In some ways, you put your credibility on the line when you do this stuff. Heck, I said the mighty Florida Gators would win the college football national championship. Yikes!

Of course, today, with the vast Internet, it seems like everyone has an opinion or prediction when it comes to politics. One of my bestie conservative types who despises Leavitt had this to say before the mayoral race: "A political career soon to be snuffed out. Crushed for reelection." After Leavitt won, he simply said, hey, those results were expected.

Huh?

Well, it is the Internet, after all, and I suspect he figured no one was paying much attention.

Predicting in the newspaper is a different matter altogether. Your words are printed forever. And if you get it wrong, my bestie commenter friends would never let me forget it.

With the risk understood, I tried my luck in our high-profile mayoral race. I was able to use my brain to figure this race out because I didn't have a dog in the hunt. When you have a dog in the hunt — like my conservative friends had — you sort of suspend yourself into a delusional state and end up saying stupid stuff. Like that Leavitt was sure to lose. (Hey, do you think these guys could use my "stupid stuff" mug?)

So a few weeks before the election, I wrote that I wouldn't bet against Leavitt winning. Then, a few days before the election, I went on KATU-TV and told anchor Steve Dunn that Leavitt would win with 52 percent. He won with 52 percent.

Oh, I've been wrong plenty of times. But at least this time, I didn't do stupid stuff!