Who’s the Front-Runner?

JoeyK asked a good question about my piece about Joan Fitz-Gerald last week, which I think deserves a considered answer.

I called Fitz-Gerald the “front-runner” in the race for the Democratic nomination for the 2nd Congressional District seat. JoeyK responded:

You call her a “front runner.” What makes you think that? Is there some polling you know about? What about fundraising? Polls on name ID in CD-2 maybe?

I certainly hope that you would not be doing the same thing that groups like Colorado Media Matters watch so closely for by putting a non-journalistic spin on something that has no factual basis other than your personal opinion. If it is just your personal opinion, I would appreciate it if you marked the column as so. Otherwise it hurts the credibility of this otherwise credible news source.

This seems to me to be a reasonable question about how a news judgment is made. What is a front-runner? And how do you infer who is one?

There can different definitions of what constitutes a “front-runner.” JoeyK identified several: polling data; fundraising; or simply an opinion of the writer (in this case, me). In addition, an incumbent is usually considered a front-runner to win his seat, or a person with more elective experience might be  considered one against political neophytes.

The definition I was thinking of when I used the term was something like the answer to this question: If the primary election were held today, who would win?

The answer is not, it seems to me, a “factual” one in the usual sense of the term. It is necessarily speculative. The election isn’t being held today, after all. Predicting what will happen in the future is always a hazardous business. Even polling data — which is probably the hardest “fact” you could obtain in this case — is not an infallible guide, as the last presidential election demonstrated.

In any case, I haven’t seen any polling data. I don’t even know for certain if any has been done. And fundraising data is not yet available either.

But I did make an assessment of relative strength of the candidates in the story. This was not just an “opinion,” either. I have lots of opinions, but I don’t have one on this topic. The way I reached the assessment was talking to people who know more about CD-2 politics than I do, some of whom have apaprently seen polling data. I also interviewed the other two candidates — Jared Polis and Will Shafroth — who have so far arisen to challenge for the seat. I asked them how they perceived their chances, what they believed the ColoradoPols.com “Big Line” has Fitz-Gerald as a large favorite. She is the more politically experienced of the three. And the political analysts I spoke with believed her to be leading the race, in the sense mentioned earlier, i.e., if the election were held today …

Taken all-in-all, I felt justified in calling Fitz-Gerald the “front-runner” for the seat at this point.  I think a writer owes readers his or her analysis, not just stenographic skills. And as I’ve tried to point out, it’s based on an examination of several lines of evidence, none conclusive in itself, but all leading to the same general assessment.

None of this means that Fitz-Gerald will win the election when the actual day rolls around. But saying she’s the front-runner today doesn’t seem to be an abuse of the situation. I’d be eager to hear other opinions.

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Dan Whipple

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