Monday’s front page at the Washington Post had one of those sunny-for-Democrats wishful-thinking pieces, headlined: "Handful of Races May Tip Control of Congress." Reporters Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza insisted Democratic gains were inevitable:
The result is a midterm already headed toward what appears to be an inevitable conclusion: Democrats are poised to gain seats in the House and in the Senate for the first time since 2000. The difference between modest gains (a few seats in the Senate and fewer than 10 in the House) and significant gains (half a dozen in the Senate and well more than a dozen in the House) is where the battle for control of Congress will be fought.
No one should argue it’s all roses for Republicans right now, but conservative media critics know that liberal media outlets have a habit of predicting Democratic victories that don’t quite happen.
In his Post Politics Hour online chat yesterday, Cillizza was pressed on whether the Post has done the happy talk before: "Isn't it possible we can find Post articles from February 2002 and February 2004 touting the Democrats' chances? Afraid your crystal ball might be cloudy?"
I don't think the comparison to 2002 and 2004 is entirely apt. In 2002, the impact of Sept. 11 was still being felt deeply by the country and there was little indication that the national playing field favored either party overwhelmingly. It's true that in 2004, some of the poll numbers (right direction/wrong track, Bush's job approval numbers) SEEMED to point to Kerry and the Democrats winning. But, a presidential election cycle is so different than a midterm election that it isn't entirely fair to compare them.
So, I don't think this story was too friendly toward Democrats. I think it reflected the current political reality seen by smart observers on both sides of the partisan divide, which is that Democratic gains are likely but Democratic takeovers of the House and Senate aren't in the cards just yet.
So I hit the Nexis system to see what the Post might have done in January or February of the last two election cycles.
– On February 22, 2004, the Post highlighted: "Key House Races Are Heating Up; Democrats Heartened by Win in Kentucky Special Election." Reporter Juliet Eilperin didn’t make wild predictions about a majority, and presented House races as a mixed bag (and pundit Stu Rothenberg said expect no big changes), but in one case Eilperin highlighted how "Democrats are also well positioned in Washington state's 8th District" – which they lost in November to Republican Dave Reichert.
– On January 27, 2002, the Post ran an article headlined "Morella Faces Well-Stacked Deck; Democrats Believe Redistricting Will Oust Republican, Help Them Win House." On its face, reporters Jo Becker and Spencer Hsu were right about the Dems defeating Morella, but not about the House majority. (Oddly, there was no broad mention of the House elections writ large in that story.)
– On February 6, 2002, exactly four years before Balz and Chris "No One Saw A Trend" Cillizza uncorked the happy talk, Post reporter Thomas Edsall had a piece headlined: "House Democrats Ahead in Finances; GOP Trails in 14 of 22 Key Contests." Edsall began:
In the competitive districts likely to determine which party will control the House after November, Democratic candidates began this election year in better financial position than their Republican adversaries.
In 22 competitive races in which the nominee of each party is generally agreed upon, Democratic incumbents had a strong financial edge in 10, and Democratic challengers were financially competitive in four, according to reports recently filed with the Federal Election Commission. GOP incumbents held solid cash advantages in four, and Republican challengers were financially competitive in four, for an overall 14 to 8 Democratic advantage.
At least none of these articles appeared on Page One. It’s probably a little too painful for the Post reporters yesterday to note that the Republicans added eight seats to their majority in 2002 and another three in 2004, plus-eleven in the Bush years.