Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Party, Not Press

Over at NPR, Ken Rudin asks: "Have The Media Already Decided The GOP Race?" and compares the current GOP contest with WH 1972, in which George McGovern had very little national support at all until much later in the process (via Jaime Fuller).

It's worth knocking this down once again, as long as people are still saying this. Rudin's post mentions the media ("we") four times, but completely overlooks the real actors who matter here: the political party. It's absolutely true that the press can go off on its own and create bubbles for candidates without serious support from party actors, as the Donald Trump mishegas demonstrated earlier this year, but in most cases that ends about the same way that the Trump fiasco did: it just fizzles out without any real effects on anything. Moreover, any candidate who does have support from party actors will eventually gain media attention. That's not to say that it all works out perfectly with media attention perfectly tracking party support; it's more that when they do diverge, as they do all the time, it's not likely to matter very much.

A second point is that while I and others often lump together the nomination contests beginning in 1972, it tends to be highly problematic to do so. Why 1972? That marks the beginning of the post-reform era, since the Democrats completely overhauled their process after the 1968 election. However, as I and others have argued, the early cycles in the new reformed process were quite unsettled. As a result, parties had great difficulty influencing the results, and media effects were unusually large. Since the 1980s, however, that's mostly reversed, and nominations now can mostly be understood as party actions. The press is just not all that important, at least not as an independent causal factor.

The other thing that's important to remember is that there is no actual good reason for either parties or the press to be fair to candidates. They should be fair to voters, either individually or as they exist in organized groups and constituencies. But candidates? Nope. There is simply no reason for the press to automatically believe that vanity candidates Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are entitled to the same level of coverage as plausible nominees Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.

6 comments:

  1. I disagree. The press is a factor in how the party decides, in two ways.

    One: if a candidate has love from the press, that's a factor in their favor, and one that party actors have to acknowledge. Party actors aren't just picking the candidate they want in their heart-of-hearts. They're also tossing their lot in with that candidate. Sometimes, that means swallowing your pride and going for the guy you think is going to win, regardless of preference. I think McCain is a good example of this: he had the media love sewn up, and that counted as points in his favor. But we could also toss in Bush: acceptable to fiscal conservatives, a top favorite of social conservatives, but his apostasy (I'm really using that word a lot today) on education was forgiven. Why? Because he was absolutely a lock to win the nomination due to name recognition and rolodex, and his people made it clear that if you crossed him, your phone calls wouldn't get answered at the Bush White House. It's not that the party doesn't decide, but they don't do so in ignorance of their perception of the media mattering. (it doesn't matter whether the media actually matter, only that party actors THINK it matters)

    Two: Well, this is the press actually mattering. Ignore the flash-in-the-pan candidates. Are there candidates who do better than the should have because of the media? Bachmann would say yes. But take it a step further: media, be they Fox or real, are a method of communication, and not just of party actor preferences. The media also serve to amplify lay voter preferences, and do, dare we say it, help candidates reach voters and party actors. As such, they are the filter. Yes, Romney needs to glad-handle all 99 IA county GOP chairs, but he's going to have an icy reception with them if Fox says Romney is a bad man (or Romney says something himself to alienate them). Remember, we've had all these discussions of the closed conservative information loop. We can't say that it matters for everything except party actors in presidential contests.

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  2. “The other thing that's important to remember is that there is no actual good reason for either parties or the press to be fair to candidates. They should be fair to voters, either individually or as they exist in organized groups and constituencies.”


    This system just doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how much civil liberties, anti-war, drug reform and other groups lobby for Gary Johnson, it’s not going to get him into the GOP debates. In fact, they know it will only hurt his efforts, so it probably hasn’t even been considered.

    Our country is split down the middle in the most viscous way. If independents want a say in the primary process, they must pick a side and then play by its rules. A plurality of voters refuse to do this… and so the process doesn’t care much about them.

    The press doesn’t have to pretend that Gary Johnson is a first tier candidate, but the contortions they’ve gone through to keep him out of debates are simply amazing. The press should represent the disinterested voter looking for information -- it’s not their job to perpetuate an unrepresentative two-party system.

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  3. Independents have choices, Couves. We just have to be willing to throw our vote away. Many of us do so regularly.

    Don't get mesmerized by our only national election, which will always tend to drive matters to the mushy middle. And I acknowledge that the Left here views all those evil Faux News R's on stage as extremists, as opposed to the lefty saints, but that's a statement about the Left, not the on-stagers, because the extremist factor is a wash, basically.

    It'd help around the margins if we opened up the electoral process a bit, and let these 3rd party candidates at least get on the ballot easier. Ron frickin Paul should not have had to fight to get on all those ballots last time through. Fair enough if somebody shuts out candidates polling at <1%, for a televised debate on a for profit network. Maybe CSPAN could force the minor candidates into the picture more.

    I like Johnson. Let's all agree to throw that pompous ass Santorum out, and add Johnson. Have Paul endorse Johnson, to pump his numbers up as necessary. That'd add a welcome boost to the freedom and liberty agenda.

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  4. Anonymous -- Agreed on all points. I’d also like to see a single unified primary ballot. Voters should be able to cast a mixed-ticket primary ballot if they so choose. That would really shake up the system.

    There’s no way Ron Paul would be in the debates if it wasn't for the fact that his supporters view the campaign as a Braveheart-like charge across open ground.

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  5. Meh, I half way agree and half way disagree, Jon. As your commenters above are noting, what of Gary Johnson? He meets the criteria to be included in the debates, but the media is completely ignoring him. That's the party itself, yes, but the media is making the rules as to who is invited to the debates, and who is not. So that's their fault.

    I'm not a supporter of most of Johnson's policies, but it would be nice to have him up there talking sanity about war and drugs. The more the better.

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  6. The other thing that's important to remember is that there is no actual good reason for either parties or the press to be fair to candidates. They should be fair to voters, either individually or as they exist in organized groups and constituencies. But candidates? Nope. There is simply no reason for the press to automatically believe that vanity candidates Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are entitled to the same level of coverage as plausible nominees Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.

    Yes and no.

    Definitely, there's no obligation to give "equal time" to fringe candidates. Indeed, even the people who say this don't really believe it-- they just want THEIR GUY to get more coverage. The people complaining about Ron Paul's lack of coverage don't want Gary Johnson to get more coverage, for instance.

    But having said that, I do think that there is a way that the media is "unfair" to fringe candidates that is worthy of criticism, and that is focusing on them totally from a horse race perspective. Every time I ever see a candidate like Cain or Johnson or Gingrich interviewed in the mainstream media, the questions are always horse race oriented, about how they have no chance of winning. Not only is this lazy journalism (you actually have to do homework to ask good questions about issues!), but it also deprives fringe candidates of the opportunity to try to influence their party, the electorate, or the race, which is one of the reasons many of them run.

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