Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Want To Be Like Harry Houdini (Invisible Man)

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.


  1. Liked the post! I would say that the fact that some of these candidates are ducking the press isn't too surprising. O'Donnell for example has decided that regular main strea mpress is simply out to get her. They smell blood in the water after her gaffes and past history coming to light. I think many of the Tea Party candidates are doing that in order to for their base to appriciate them more. If there is one I've noticed is that most Tea Party memebers have a deep distrust of main stream media. Harry Reid running from local press isn't too surprising. They hate him out there, so why give them an opportunity to make him look bad? He's having enough trouble as it is. I would have to say that this trend of candidates picking and choosing which faction of the press they want to talk to is probably only going to increase as the various media outlets splinter off into more politically defined factions.

  2. Over the next four weeks, we will be treated to a seemingly infinite number of reflections on why Election 2010 is or isn't the same as Election 1994. For the cable newsies, this will fall out along predictable lines; the Foxy folk will say that it is the same as 1994, because Boehner and co. today are as brilliant as Gingrich was then, while MSNBC will say No way, since Clinton was a hayseed with a WH filled with inexperienced boobs in 1994, while Obama is much shrewder today.

    If you want, you could probably consume an infinite number of variations on the above themes over the next month. Here's a prediction: not a single MSM source pushing the "Clinton White House inexperience" meme will bring up the Cuban Refugee Crisis, and its importance to Clinton's loss in his first re-election bid as governor.

    Its no secret that Clinton hated - well, probably "hates", to this day - Carter for dumping those refugees on him, arguably torpedoing Clinton's reelection. This means that, when Clinton entered the White House in 1993, every experienced White House operator for the previous 25 years was either

    a) Loyal to a guy Clinton publicly hated, or
    b) For an administration of the other party.

    My point: in spite of a million MSM talking heads analyzing Clinton's inexperienced White House leading to the 1994 landslide, not one of them will peel back the onion even one layer to understand why.

    The relevance to this post?

    Perhaps the problem with the media is not that it is partisan, but that it is, overwhelmingly, incredibly superficial.

    Since everything is soundbites and spin and superficial (so-called) analysis, why in the world would a tea party favorite like Joe Miller or Sarah Palin subject themselves to the other team over at MSNBC? The other team digs no deeper than the friendlies at Fox, while also exposing them to the risk of a witch hunt.

    (Which, if you're Christine O'Donnell, could be a serious concern).

  3. CSH,

    On the point about the Clinton WH, I mostly agree, although I really don't know that it was because of the Cuba thing...it made a lot of sense in a news cycle way for the next outsider southern governor not affiliated with the liberal wing of the party to try to get as much distance from the failed Carter presidency as possible. Remember, BHO took some hits for hiring lots of B. Clinton people, and Clinton is popular!

    And I agree it was a terrible mistake. There were a lot of good people in the Carter administration, and a few of them should have been in the Clinton WH on day one -- the obvious one, IIRC, was Stu Eisenstadt (sp?), but there were a few other possibilities.

    (One partial exception I can think of was Alice Rivlin, who again if I recall correctly started out as Clinton's #2 behind Panetta at OMB, but that's not quite exactly the WH).

  4. Scott,

    I assume you meant to leave that on the other post, but...how come no one ever mentions my Elvis-referenced post titles? (He says, whiningly)

  5. I suspect if there is a story/trend here, it's related to the rapidly changing economics and institutional structures of journalism.

    Twenty years ago, a candidate for major office (e.g., Congress or statewide office) knew the media consisted of 1) major metropolitan newspapers (typically 1-2 per market), 2) local affiliates of the three major broadcast networks, 3) news radio stations (private and public), 4) small city/town newspapers, and 5) assorted alternative/niche weekly and monthly print publications. It was a relatively small, relatively well-ordered universe, with generally agreed-upon reporting and editorial norms. In this universe, newspapers generated (according to a recent estimate cited by Daniel Okrent) 85% or more of "news" stories. (A classic/typical example being a NY Times article showing up on the CBS Evening News two days later.)

    The internet is rapidly destroying the economics that underlay that infrastructure, and nobody knows what will replace the role that major metropolitan newspapers (and local newspapers) have played as journalists and investigators.

    Another example is Obama's recent CNBC townhall, and his Rolling Stone interview. Obama does more of those "niche" media appearances than previous presidents because there are more "niches" in today's media universe.


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