There are many differences between Australian and American elections, but there’s been too little attention paid to one striking similarity: the way the media transparently try to talk up the closeness of an election even when the result is a foregone conclusion.

They’re still doing it. A wire story for The Australian on Monday, for example, referred to Barack Obama “pressuring Senator McCain in other traditionally Republican states in the east” — giving no hint that Obama is actually ahead in almost all those states. That evening, SBS news reported that “some opinion polls predict” an Obama victory: an odd use of “some” that apparently means “all”.

The media hate landslides, because the suspense of a close election is supposed to sell more newspapers or advertising time. Most of all, they hate predictable results: “late swing to whoever” is always going to be a more compelling headline than “no change again today”, even if the latter has the merit of being true. (See competing graphs at Pollster.com.)

We know this from last year, when Australia’s media maintained until the last possible moment that John Howard was on the verge of a possible comeback, and that ten months worth of polling data could safely be ignored.

The truth is that there is no longer any doubt about the result of next Tuesday’s election. The question is only about the size of Obama’s victory: will it be the runaway result that the polls are currently suggesting, or will there be a “narrowing” in the last few days to produce a closer contest?

Coalition sympathisers last year drew ridicule for repeatedly pointing to a narrowing in the polls, only to have the next poll fail to bear them out. But in a sense they had the last laugh: the margin really did narrow in the last week or so, and Rudd’s victory, while decisive, was a good deal smaller than anyone relying on the polls would have predicted.

Most commentators never really acknowledged this fact, but those who did (including myself – Crikey, Wednesday 28 November, 2007 “Anti-union campaign did what it was supposed to“) generally pointed to John Howard’s anti-union campaign as the key factor; although ineffective with swinging voters, it seems to have shored up the base of the Coalition vote and prevented Labor from gaining ground in the Liberal heartland.

John McCain’s recent emphasis on Obama’s supposed “socialism” could be trying to repeat the same trick. Republican strategists surely know that victory is now out of the question, and the goal is to prevent the sort of landslide that will sweep away a raft of GOP legislators as well.

We’ll know soon enough whether they’ve succeeded.

Peter Fray

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