The most potentially interesting thing I've read today is a Jonathan Martin Politico piece about what he calls "missing" candidates. The idea is that the incentives have changed for campaigning, and as a result candidates aren't doing it. Campaigning, that is. At least not in person.
It's at least plausible that it's true, and if so I think it would be a very important development. Not all on the bad side, by the way -- if Members of Congress no longer believed that personal appearances in the district were important, Congress could spend a lot more time in session. Just mentioning that, however, leads me to wonder just how true this new trend really is. After all, we know that Congress hasn't switched back to a M-F schedule with minimal recesses, so at least at that level the pressure to get back home is still driving things. So, with that in mind, I went back to Martin's article to take a closer look. I don't want to bash it...basically, I think it's an interesting start, but only that, and I hope that reporters (and eventually political scientists) follow up on this kind of reporting. As I said, if it's true, it's really important, but is it true?
As I see it, Martin is actually talking about several different things, which may or may not be related.
1. Some candidates are ducking debates. His examples, however, are Rick Perry, Jan Brewer, and David Vitter -- incumbents with leads. This is normal campaign behavior, and not new at all. Are there any challengers, behind in the polls, who don't want to debate?
2. Rand Paul and Christine O'Donnell are ducking national TV exposure beyond Fox News. Interesting about those two candidates, but given how little national TV time most candidates ever get, I'm not so sure this is meaningful.
3. Some candidates are avoiding the state and local press. More interesting, but not, so far, quantified or placed in context. The examples given are Paul, Sharron Angle and Harry Reid in Nevada, and perhaps Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. Again, I don't mean to be critical of Martin -- this is one story, and it's a good start. But how typical are these examples? How different is it from past campaigns? It's worth noting that Sarah Palin never did give an open press conference when she ran for Vice President, which was certainly highly unusual. Is that what's going on here, or are we just talking about a handful of candidates that manage press relations very carefully?
3a. Some Republicans, including Angle, appear to be open to the partisan press but not to the mainstream press. That's certainly new compared to twenty years ago, when there was much less partisan media (and when a lot more people read local newspapers, and presumably watched their local news broadcasts). How extensive is this change?
4. Some candidates are apparently holding campaign events that are more scripted and controlled than has been typical in the past. Again, the obvious example here would be George W. Bush's extraordinary efforts to screen his audiences. The context for the change (if there is one) is, Martin reports, video cameras and YouTube, with campaigns more worried about the risk of an embarrassing moment than they are with reaching out to undecided voters. Again, how extensive is this? There's talk in the story about incumbents avoiding open Town Hall meetings because they can produce ambush videos, but actually I suspect that a little solid advance work can actually prevent that...a good pol, with good advance work, should be able to learn how to look good in those situations (Martin cites Chris Christie as, according to Candy Crowly, being good at it -- recall that Al Franken also has shown the ability to shine when accosted by angry voters.
5. Some candidates -- O'Donnell, and perhaps Ken Buck in Colorado -- seem to be eschewing live campaigning entirely. Now, that would be a big deal if true, but O'Donnell is far from a typical candidate, and the evidence on Buck appears iffy. So, is it true?
Put it all together, and I really don't know, yet, what we have. Could be a nothing story, just normal behavior plus a couple of oddball candidates with underdeveloped skills who really have to avoid the press and will get beat anyway. Could be a shift to a more partisan-centered campaign style. Could be a shift away from in-person, unscripted campaigning. Hey, reporters! This is a worthwhile story; we want more data. Oh, and political scientists -- watch out for this one. We could be getting some variation in something that normally hasn't really varied much, which might allow some studies of electioneering to learn new things.