Lessons from the Post's bizarre coverage of Virginia prez poll

by Rob Richie // Published September 23, 2008
The Washington Post has a front page article today on its new poll in the tight presidential race in Virginia -- one that is newsworthy in showing Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican John McCain in a state that a Democrat hasn't carried since 1964.

The Post highlights Obama's lead as 3% (49% to 46%), showing that result in a page one chart. Then, as an aside on page A6, it reports "When third-party candidates -- Ralph Nader and Bob Barr -- were included in the questioning. Obama edged to a five-point lead."

Well, ahem, Nader and Barr in fact are on the ballot in Virginia, as they each are in at least 45 states according to Ballot Access News. So are the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney and the Constitution's Party's Chuck Baldwin, who recently  picked up the endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul. Why on earth wouldn't the poll lead with the full results as its main story? Which is more accurate: reporting the results of a hypothetical two-candidate election or reporting the results of what voters will actually see on their ballot -- and indeed are seeing on their ballot, as early voting has already begun in Virginia?

Major media bias against third party and independent candidates can come in many forms. Sure, this year's batch of third party candidates are not going to win in November. But they are hardly a lightweight crew, as they include the nation's most famous consumer advocate, two former Members of Congress and a candidate endorsed by one of this year's leading Republican contenders. Certainly any candidate qualified on enough ballots to be able to win the presidency should have been included in the first presidential debate, as promoted by Rock the Debates and Open Debates-- and I for one sure would have liked to see Barack Obama and John McCain address their challenges to such bipartisan policies as this week's likely federal bailout of Wall Street.

If states like Virginia established instant runoff voting for president --as they could be a mere statute -- this debate over debate inclusion would be unlikely to happen. I doubt Obama and McCain fear losing to Nader, Barr, McKinney and Baldwin. Rather, they don't want to promote "spoilers", which is an artifact of our bankrupt plurality voting system.