Thursday, September 8, 2011

They Set Down Right on the Horse!

Greg Marx has an absolute must-read for people who cover electoral politics today in defense of horse race coverage of campaigns. I'm going to quote a good-sized chunk, but you really should read the whole thing...
A primary campaign, and especially its early “invisible” period, can be understood as a time when party leaders—in other words, “insiders”—talk to, and argue with, each other about who their standard-bearer should be. Many factors go into that choice, from perceptions about electability to petty personal considerations. But the argument is, in large part, a contest over who wields power within the party, and what sort of values and goals the party wants to prioritize.
For the 2012 presidential cycle, this argument has been underway for months within the Republican Party. And the way it plays out will shape the choices available to GOP voters. In even the earliest primary and caucus states, voters choose from the options presented by party insiders (or, in some years, ratify the insiders’ choice). If reporters wait for the voters to weigh in to take stock of who’s ahead, they’ll have missed much of the story.
If you’re an ordinary voter, that might seem unfair. But one of the features of American democracy is that ordinary voters who care deeply about their party’s choice can, through the commitment of time and energy, influence the insider conversation. And good horse race coverage can help them understand how to do that effectively, by making the conversation transparent.
Just excellent. Suppose that you're relatively new to politics and sympathetic to Tea Party concerns. You want to write a check to a presidential candidate, or you live in Iowa and want to spend a few hours going door-to-door. But which candidate? It's good to get reports of their positions and their histories, but it's also good to be armed with some accurate horse race information. Suppose you wind up believing that Michele Bachmann would be the best nominee and Rick Perry second-best. You may still choose to support Michele Bachmann even if you realize she's an implausible nominee and very unlikely to win, either because you believe it's worth it to try to beat the odds or because you believe that it's worth building Bachmann up in order to shift the party in her direction. But you also may make a strategic choice to support Perry instead. Either way, unless your support is purely expressive (that is, you just want to make a statement and don't care how you influence the world), having horse race information that's as accurate as possible is critical to making the right choice.

Anyway, terrific item by Marx.


  1. You have to think internet based small dollar is changing things, just not for the better:

    Ron Paul

    Perhaps making it more transparent, but I don't see better candidates emerging. Parties exist for one reason in this county -- nominations. Dollar voting isn't part of that.

    Might also explain why Obama has so little political capital. He knows his internet funding can't be re-directed towards downticket candidates, and they know it too.

  2. Marx is saying, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. He does carefully acknowledge, though, that plenty of horse-race coverage is -- to mix metaphors -- still bathwater.

    But I agree that there's virtue in letting ordinary voters know what political insiders are thinking and saying. I also think this is much harder to do than we suppose. This was brought home to me in '08 when I watched the Super Tuesday results at a MoveOn-sponsored house party. Even the people there, who were high-information enough to have gathered for an evening of watching primary returns, were only fitfully aware of how the system works. A couple of them kept objecting to the TV analysts' attempts to break the vote down demographically based on exit polls -- to distinguish how whites, blacks, Hispanics, women, older people, etc. were voting. Isn't this an invidious way of dividing people from each other, they asked? Here in America, aren't we supposed to value everyone equally, regardless of race, color or creed?

    I tried to explain that such categories reflected the ways in which candidates themselves, and their campaign managers and consultants, thought and talked about the race -- as a contest for the support of demographically identifiable groups. Given this, I said, it was better that the TV people let the rest of us in on that discussion too than that they keep it from us. But overall, my impression was that much of the TV coverage was actually way over lots of viewers' heads -- that at least at the pace at which information is thrown at you on TV, it's extremely hard even for many diligent voters to make sense of analyses that presuppose political insiders' knowledge and ways of thinking.

  3. Marx is right, of course, but Jeff's comment is also important.

    If you interpret "horse-race coverage" to be about the entire campaigns, then of course it matters. But if you interpret "horse-race coverage" to be the 19th story this week about polling looking only at the marginals, then that's the bathwater. Valuable, yes, but its repetition adds nothing. Having weekly polls, and stories on them, is useful to people, but there's so much saturation that it's kinda like yet another singing competition reality show: it adds nothing, and it's presence squeezes out the potential for something better (in the case of the singing show, a test pattern, or reruns of Gunsmoke, or an infomercial)

  4. ". . . much of the TV coverage was actually way over lots of viewers' heads . . ."

    That has to be the most depressing thing I've read all day.

  5. Scott, yes, I know, it was kind of a shock to discover this. Explains a lot about our politics, though.


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