As some of you may have heard, the Republicans held a debate in New Hampshire, at St. Anselm’s College, this past Monday (transcript here.) It was the first of many to come in that state and across the nation more generally. Seven Republicans attended, including most of the “frontrunners” (with the conspicuous exception of Sarah Palin as well as Jon Huntsman). At this point, seven months before the New Hampshire primary, most voters in that state were likely not paying much attention. But this does not mean these early debates aren’t important. They are, because they provide a window into how the media, aided by a media-selected cadre of party “insiders” and reputed “experts” (full disclosure – I occupy a peripheral spot in the “expert” clique), will begin winnowing the field of potential candidates during the coming weeks into a more manageable number. During this period – which some have dubbed the “invisible primary” – the media will use these debates to help develop a narrative about the coming election. That narrative will include a preliminary “ranking” of the candidates that is critical for establishing the various thresholds each candidate must meet to maintain “viability” – a crucial element in their ability to raise money. Whether in print or on the air, there is only so much room in the overall media narrative, and thus reporters try very hard to cull the weaker candidates from the field. They do so in part by focusing on candidates’ tactical errors or other gaffes that might serve as a pretext for relegating the candidate to second tier status or worse – disqualifying them altogether. Once cast into the equivalent of candidate purgatory, it becomes almost impossible for a candidate to climb out, in part because fundraising dries up and because media rankings that start out fluid soon begin to ossify. So candidates try very hard in this invisible primary period to both separate themselves from the pack and to avoid making statements or tactical decisions that can be construed by the media as “mistakes”.
The interesting aspect of this exercise is determining what “gaffes” the media will latch onto. Some are easy to predict. For example, in the days before the debate, Newt Gingrich’s top staff resigned, sparking a series of stories speculating that his candidacy was fatally wounded and that he would likely drop out. Never mind that this type of staff reshuffling is not unusual (see Ford in 1976, Reagan in 1980 and McCain in 2008) and that it occurred very very early in the race – the media vultures were already circling Newt’s candidacy. Some of the “missteps” they cite, however, are more subtle. In Monday’s debate, for example, Tim Pawlenty was criticized for not following up on his earlier remarks citing Romney’s Massachusetts’ health care plan as the model for Obama’s national health reform plan – a comparison Pawlenty summarized earlier on Fox News with the term “Obamneycare”. When given the opportunity on Monday to expound on this point, with Romney standing next to him, Pawlenty demurred. The media, citing the usual Republican “strategists” and “operatives” deemed this a mistake, as captured in a Politico story that led with: “Tim Pawlenty’s puzzling decision at Monday’s debate to abandon a new line of attack on Mitt Romney’s health care record is prompting fresh doubts among members of his own party about his readiness to confront the GOP frontrunner.” Notice the language here – a “puzzling decision” that prompted “fresh doubts” about Pawlenty’s “readiness.” Really? Puzzling to whom? Why, to the media, as gleaned from their “expert” sources –who wanted Pawlenty to aggressively challenge Romney, thus generating a better story. And who has “fresh doubts” – again, it is the media along with the “experts”, which is already generating a narrative suggesting Pawlenty is too “nice” and not “battle tested.”
At the other extreme, Michele Bachmann bolstered her candidacy on Monday – or so the media proclaimed. In a USAToday article titled “Debate Showing Elevates Bachmann to Higher Tier”, Jackie Kucinich wrote, “On a crowded stage, Bachmann was lively, confident, personable — she managed to mention her 23 foster children three times — and unremittingly critical of President Obama‘s policies from health care to Libya. Against other contenders with longer resumes and more experience, she emerged from the pack in way that is likely to make it easier for her to raise money, attract grass-roots support — and even emerge as a Tea Party favorite to rival Sarah Palin.”
In short, Bachmann beat media expectations, and thus elevated her stature in the race – not so much because of her policy stances or experience, but because she was aggressive, confident and on the attack. In the words of one pundit: “She wasn’t flustered, she didn’t say anything silly, she had some funny lines.” Not getting flustered, being funny and avoiding mistakes is a low bar indeed, but because she cleared it, she was deemed a “winner” by the media. Moreover, Bachmann meets the other media viability criteria – she has been a prodigious fundraiser, raising more money than any other House incumbent. Finally, there is a backstory that makes the Bachmann candidacy newsworthy – she is threatening to fill the void left by Palin’s absence in the race and is therefore in some sense a Palin “rival”.
Mitt Romney, meanwhile – the purported frontrunner based on early polls – “won” by showing up, not making mistakes, and leaving relatively unscathed, as his rivals directed more of their ire at President Obama. How do the media know this? Because they surveyed 91 Democrat and Republican “insiders”, that’s why, and a plurality of them narrowly chose Romney as the winner. That same group praised Bachmann’s performance while panning Pawlenty. Of course, now that Bachmann’s profile has been raised, the bar will be set higher for her in the next debate.
And so it goes for each of the candidates, as the media, aided and abetted by the often unnamed party strategists who have their own interests in this race, tries to slot them into the prevailing election narrative. That narrative will be dominated by a horserace motif – the unlucky candidates will “fail to gain traction”, or see “momentum slipping”, while the favored few will be “leading the pack”. The rest will be “struggling to break out of the pack.” Of course, the focus on the horserace underplays the real story from Monday’s debate: no matter who wins the Republican nomination, that candidate will frame this election as a referendum on Obama’s leadership during a period of anemic economic growth. Indeed, despite the obligatory questions regarding social issues, and some discussion of foreign policy, what was most noteworthy was how much the candidates agreed on what they see as the central issue driving the vote in 2012: that Obama’s policies had prolonged the period of economic stagnation, and that the solution involved some combination of policies designed to scale back government and encourage job creation. The critical question to be answered is how many voters agree.
And they are off!