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Media's pointless speculation over election outcome

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 4:04 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Coverage of campaign has become a blur of polls and predictions
  • He says in a race this close, speculating about the outcome is a waste of time
  • Media shouldn't focus on campaign officials predicting wins, he says
  • Kurtz: Beware of exit poll leaks on Tuesday; they're not reliable

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- It's all become a blur of polls, predictions and prognostication.

The final days of the presidential race have been a head-spinning experience, giving us a collective case of vertigo as the media deliver their own ever-changing analyses while also conveying the strategists' spin.

If it were up to me, I would ban all reporting of campaign officials declaring that their guy is going to win, or that their internal polls actually show them ahead in Ohio or Florida. Unconstitutional, I know, but it would spare us all kinds of utterly useless information.

Storm swamps the campaign

We all want to know who's going to win. But in a contest this tight, that's almost impossible to forecast with any certainty. So journalists flock to each new tracking poll as if, at long last, the mystery will be solved and the future revealed.

Right now, the consensus has congealed around the idea that President Barack Obama will win a second term. Maybe that's right, but keep in mind that we imbue a 2- or 3-point lead by Obama in a state such as Florida with almost cosmic significance, even though his advantage may fall within the margin of error.

Watch: Getting Campaign Vertigo from the Relentless Media Spin

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Remember when some conservatives were carping that the media were skewing the polls in the president's favor? You don't hear much of that since Mitt Romney surged in the surveys. The notion that a wide array of media organizations were cooking the books was as ludicrous as, say, the charge that the Obama administration was manipulating the unemployment figures.

There has been a manic-depressive quality to reporting on the race, as the conventional wisdom has changed shape like an overactive amoeba.

Watch: Late-Night Comics Savage Romney, Not Obama

A year ago, the media kept telling us that Obama would have an awfully difficult time winning re-election unless the economy improved.

MSNBC's war on Romney
Campaign flap over FEMA

By the time Romney emerged from the GOP demolition derby, the betting was that he was so damaged he was unlikely to win. After the conventions, Romney was viewed as such a flop that conservative commentators started debating the reasons he would lose.

Then came Obama's disastrous first debate. Romney shot up in the polls, and the commentators started saying the president had blown the race. Only in recent days, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, has the press pack shifted yet again to the notion that Obama will win enough swing states to get to 270. That is, unless you believe Karl Rove and Dick Morris, both of whom have predicted a Romney victory on Fox News.

Watch: Why Do Media Deem Obama-Christie Teamwork So Strange?

If Obama does win, the coverage of the president's role in dealing with the hurricane -- and especially his bromance with Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- might turn out to be a factor. Even Republicans are telling me that privately. Given the magnitude of the storm, journalists had little choice but to focus on Obama's role as emergency coordinator, which relegated Romney to the sidelines after a period in which he had been gaining momentum.

But the endless ink and airtime devoted to a Republican governor teaming up with a Democratic president during a crippling disaster was a bit troubling. Was it really so jaw-dropping that the two men might briefly put politics aside with so many lives lost and millions without power or gasoline? The cynicism that permeated the coverage was disturbing.

Watch: Enough With Campaigns Predicting They'll Win

Of course, politics reared its head when unnamed Romney advisers told Politico that Christie had gone too far and their man had almost picked him as a running mate before changing his mind. And they all spoke anonymously, a practice with which journalists have long been too complicit.

Now, mercifully, comes the actual vote.

But if you think the media speculation game ends Tuesday, guess again. Sometime in the late afternoon, the first wave of exit polls will undoubtedly leak, either to Matt Drudge or some blogger, and spread like wildfire across the Web. These numbers will be about as reliable as those that convinced John Kerry's team in 2004 that he had won the presidency.

Smart consumers will ignore the hyperventilation and wait for actual votes to be tallied, old-fashioned as that might sound.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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