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MYERS: Poll-free caucuses: A lost opportunity

In 1972, during one of those periodic alarums about drugs politicians stage that have left us with major drug problems, U.S. Sen. George McGovern said in a Senate speech, “Narcotics addiction and crime are inseparable companions. In 98 percent of the cases [the addict] steals to pay the pusher…That translates into about $4.4 billion in crime.”

Sen. Charles Percy thought McGovern was a piker. “The total cost of drug-related crime in the U.S. today is around $10 billion to $15 billion,” he said in a congressional hearing.

Reporter Dan Baum later pointed out that, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the total value of ALL stolen property that year – drug related and otherwise – was $1.28 billion.

I was reminded of that episode when I read that Donald Trump said on Jan. 25 that by having Medicare negotiate with the pharmaceutical corporations, Medicare could “save $300 billion” on prescription drugs.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea. As the Associated Press noted, “Democrats have wanted to give Medicare that power at least since 2003, when the Medicare drug benefit law was passed – but the Republicans have always blocked it.” (Trump gets his ideas from interesting sources.)

What bothered me was that $300 billion figure. It sounded awfully high. And so it was. It turns Medicare doesn’t SPEND $300 billion on prescription drugs, so it’s unlikely to be able to SAVE that much on them. Annie Lowrey later reported in New York magazine, “He makes a populist hit on an unpopular industry, smashes his opponents, and makes himself look like a financial genius. But step back a minute. Nobody actually believes that allowing Medicare to negotiate for drugs would save $300 billion a year, nor do I understand how Trump could possibly arrive at that number with even the roughest of napkin math. The government does not spend $300 billion on prescription medications in a given year. It is a ludicrous position that a politician like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would tear apart in a debate.”

That’s the way journalism is supposed to work, which brings me to the Nevada caucuses. As Bernie Sanders has staked more of a claim to the Great Basin, reporters from around the country have seemed befuddled by how to cover a state without opinion surveys.

Huffington Post: “Nevada’s Democratic caucuses are only a week away, but it’s really unclear who has an advantage … given how little polling has been done in the state.”

Business Insider: “But with about a week to go before the crucial Nevada caucuses – seen by some Clinton allies as the first of her ‘firewall’ states that could stop Sanders’ surge – there’s almost no recent public information gauging how the last four months of the race have affected Nevada voters.”

POLLS tell us how the presidential race is affecting Nevada voters? No. Good reporting on issues and candidate positions tells us that.

How did anyone ever report on political campaigns before polling? And how could reporters possibly report on Nevada without polls? Let me see. Reporters could have spent time checking the claims of the candidates, the way Lowrey checked on Trump’s claim.

Or how about reporting on climate change and the western drought? THERE’S a good way to tell us how the candidates’ programs might affect Nevadans. How about telling us where the candidates stand on the tax loophole given to mining companies in the Mining Law of 1872?

In other words, in the absence of polls, why not, you know, report?

But no. In the absence of reliable polling, we journalists turned to reporting other so-what matters, like the “war chests” of the candidates, or whether Clinton is panicking, or – get this – stories on why there are no polls in Nevada. That was informative for caucus-goers.

One poll did finally appear, but it was commissioned by Washington Free Beacon and conducted by TargetPoint. The Beacon is a far right site and Slate reported that TargetPoint is “a conservative firm stocked with Republican operatives,” making some media entities reluctant to trust the survey, and it got limited news coverage.

The lack of polling was GOOD news. It gave serious reporters an opportunity to go back to good old fashioned shoe leather reporting. Unfortunately few serious reporters showed up.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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