clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A look at how hilariously wrong the media was on Donald Trump

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We here at Vox pride ourselves on being a "user’s guide for the news," a source of analysis and context for the puzzling headlines you read elsewhere. We hope the analysis we’re providing is accurate. But sometimes we get it — there’s no delicate way of putting this — wrong.

I’m talking, of course, about a piece Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote back in July, when Donald Trump was first rising in poll rankings. Trump occupied a steady second place when Prokop wrote that the Donald "seems to be on the initial steps of a path that was well-trodden by fringe presidential contenders last time around."

We know now Trump didn’t enjoy his summer of fame only to recede into the shadows and allow a Mitt Romney–like establishment candidate to ultimately rise above the fray. (Or chisel away at the fray, however you prefer to look at it.)

Nor did the Donald flame out after appearing not to know his facts, like a Rick Perry, nor has he been doomed by opposition research bringing to light a fraught past. "Decline" was not "in Trump’s future," as Prokop declared back in July.

Nope. Instead, Trump is topping the polls, with larger margins than ever. To his credit, Prokop actually predicted this dynamic early on, about two months after his initial Trump dismissal. In a critical review of the "party decides" theory, he found that voters were defying a lot of the usual signals that party leaders use to discredit insurgent candidates.

By December, Andrew was waving wildly at the party elites who clearly hadn’t read his September post. "It's a debacle for Republicans that would have been unimaginable at the beginning of this year," Prokop wrote just this week, after the Republican debate on Tuesday night.

"Unimaginable" – both for the party and for the news media.

Thank goodness we’re not the only ones

Here’s a far from exhaustive roundup of full-throated predictions, followed by (sometimes surprised-sounding) recants.

Nate Cohn, of the New York Times’s Upshot Blog, also wrote in July of Trump’s impending demise:

Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War. Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments — a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.

At least Cohn sprinkled his prose with a heavy dose of "probably" — though he also probably couldn’t have predicted writing an outline of Trump’s potential general election victory five months later — a chance that Cohn reluctantly called "real."

The Huffington Post famously announced back in July that it would categorize all Trump stories as "entertainment" rather than "politics." (Despite the fact that political reporters were trailing him, and no one reads the tags on stories anyway, but I digress.)

The gambit lasted for a while — but HuffPo dropped it earlier this month when the outlet realized Trump’s political appeal was real, and not all that funny.

"But that's not to say we'll be treating it as if it were a normal campaign," Arianna Huffington, the site’s owner, wrote.

The Fix’s Chris Cillizza should perhaps win an award for recanting his Trump skepticism so early. Cillizza wrote a requisite "Trump is not serious" piece in June.

But in early August, when Trump first topped multiple polls ahead of the first Republican debate, Cillizza published an astounding headline: "Boy, was I wrong about Donald Trump. Here’s why."

I based my conclusion that Trump would never be a relevant player in the Republican primary fight on the ideas that once people 1) know you and 2) don't like you, you can't change those twin realities much.

That was 100 percent true. Until Donald Trump proved it (and me) wrong.

Point taken. Never say "never" in politics. Thanks for reminding me of that old adage, Donald.

As with all predictions, there are still a few holdouts on the internet that refuse to budge on Trump’s legitimacy. Most famous among them is the renowned FiveThirtyEight blogger and proud contrarian Nate Silver. Silver, like everyone on our list, began his string of Trump commentary with an August post gleefully envisioning Trump’s eventual but certain doom. He wrote of long-lasting fringe candidates: "Buchanan, Huckabee and Forbes came nowhere close to winning the Republican nomination."

Whatever else you can say about Trump’s chances of winning the nomination, they are certainly much better than the other fringe candidates he mentioned. But Silver has doubled down on his position with unmatched crabbiness: "Dear media," he wrote in a November headline, "stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls."

By December, that plea had turned to frustration. "Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate," Silver scolded. "The risk to Trump and candidates like him is that polling built on a foundation of media coverage can be subject to a correction when the news environment changes."

Silver ran the numbers in that story and found that in every contested primary going back to 1988, the candidates receiving the most news coverage polled somewhere between the mid-40s and the mid-60s. Trump, by contrast, seems stuck somewhere in the mid-30s.

Whether Trump is a candidate we misjudged or overhyped is a question we likely won’t be able to answer until after the election, and political scientists can probably take us to task. The answer is likely a bit of both. But our job is to report the news as we see it – and if Trump looks as though he’s got a real (if small) shot at the nomination or even the presidency, it’s our duty to call it that way.

Watch: Who are Donald Trump's supporters?

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.