Two developments this weekend in the presidential race help illustrate the themes regarding how the media covers campaigns that I’ve been highlighting in recent posts. First, I tuned into the morning talk shows this Sunday to find multiple phone calls with Donald Trump occurring simultaneously. Both Chuck Todd on Meet the Press and Jon Karl on This Week started their shows with telephone interviews with The Donald. And, true to form, they both managed to conduct almost an entire interview with the GOP frontrunner with almost no effort to elicit his stance on key issues. Instead, Karl asked Trump about his views regarding Vice President Joe Biden entering the race, how he might do in Thursday’s debate among the Republican candidates, what he thought of Hillary’s character and whether he’d run as a third-party candidate. Todd covered largely the same issues. In short, the focus was primarily on campaign process and candidate personalities – not on the policies Trump would pursue as president. (To be fair, Karl did ask Trump if he would bring back waterboarding – but I suppose that drives home my point.)
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: if journalists continue to treat Trump as a carnival sideshow by trying to elicit controversial statements, rather than as a serious candidate for the highest office in the land, he’s going to maintain the support of the populist faction of Republicans who already think the media is out of touch with reality. Despite much media speculation that Trump’s support would erode after recent highly publicized controversial comments regarding Mexican migrants and Republican politicians, the latest polls show him holding steady with the support of about 20% of those surveyed, ahead of his chief rivals Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
The other big story, one that lit up the twitterverse yesterday and is the subject of countless stories today, is speculation from the usual unnamed sources that Vice President Joe Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the presidential campaign ring. Again, as I have discussed repeatedly, the thought of several months covering Hillary’s inevitable coronation slog to the Democratic nomination has newsrooms across the country desperate to create the illusion of a real race. From this perspective, the Biden rumors are manna from heaven. The reality, however, is that Biden is a 72-year old man who ran for president twice before, in 1988 and 2008, and lost badly each time. (In 2008 he dropped out after drawing less than 1% in the Iowa caucus, far behind Hillary’s third-place finish.) It’s possible that eight years as Vice President gives him a certain gravitas that he lacked before, as well as instant name recognition. Reflecting that name recognition, most polls give him about 10% support already even though he’s not a declared candidacy.
But it also means that if he runs he automatically makes Hillary the candidate of change (albeit not much change!) Even though their stances on most issues do not diverge markedly (foreign policy is a notable exception), it is not hard to envision Hillary portraying Biden as a candidate of the past. Of course, his candidacy would be buoyed by a media desperate to create the fiction of a competitive Democratic contest. Already the initial media reports are hinting at friction between Biden and the Big Dawg Bill Clinton, and they are framing a Biden candidacy in terms of the contrast between his strong ratings among voters on honesty and likability versus Clinton’s negative ratings on those characteristics. A Biden candidacy, goes the media narrative, would rescue the Democratic Party from the slow drip-drip of negative news stories about Clinton’s emails, money, and general lack of credibility, particularly among independents, that weaken her chances against Republicans. It would also fulfill the deathbed wish of Joe’s son Beau – another bonus in terms of media coverage. As evidence, read this tear-jerking account by Maureen Dowd (who apparently can read Joe’s mind) about Beau’s effort to get his father to run: “My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m O.K.”
But while a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly draw favorable media coverage, it is important to remember that, among registered voters, he is not viewed much more favorably than is Hillary.
Moreover, most people already have an opinion of Uncle Joe, so those ratings aren’t likely to change that much. And, as with all vice presidents, Joe will have to confront the difficult task of separating himself from the Obama presidency without seeming to repudiate the President’s policies. This could lead to some awkward policy statements (see Clinton on the Keystone pipeline!) from a candidate who is already well known for his verbal miscues that have made him a Youtube favorite.
Nor is it likely that Joe is going to siphon much support from Sanders’ progressive coalition. In short, a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly generate quite a bit of media coverage, much of it initially positive, from a grateful media corps, but there’s no evidence right now suggesting that he could beat Clinton. At best, the current evidence indicates a Biden candidacy might create the semblance of a competitive nomination fight and push back the timetable for Clinton to clinch the race. The question remains whether that prospect is enough to persuade him to enter the fray. The answer may depend on whether Joe is willing to relinquish his time in the political spotlight, or whether, like Frank Skeffington, he wants one more shot at center stage. Will a presidential campaign be Joe’s Last Hurrah?
Our local (and much beloved) public radio station VPR just posted a story on its website trumpeting a recent Quinnipiac poll that shows Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders beating Donald Trump 45%-37%. The poll, according to the author, indicates that Sanders is “gaining ground in his presidential campaign.” As evidence, the story quotes Tim Malloy, assistant director of the university’s polling center, who observes that Sanders “is coming up in the world. He’s got the attention of a lot of people. And he’s got the attention of a lot of young people. ” Not surprisingly, the finding that Sanders would defeat Trump in a head-to-head matchup got more than a little favorable play in the twitterverse among Bernie’s supporters. Berniementum lives!
The problem, of course, is that the poll does not indicate Bernie is gaining ground on Hillary. As the VPR report notes very early in the story, the Quinnipiac poll shows Hillary Clinton with a decided advantage over Bernie among Democrats nationwide (including Democratic leaners), leading him by 55%-17%. This is virtually unchanged from the last Quinnipiac poll released two months ago, which had Clinton beating Sanders 57%-15%. Rather than gaining ground, Sanders is at best holding his own, and this despite the rather substantial negative news coverage Clinton has endured during this period. Even among the most liberal Democrats, his natural constituency who constitute about 11% of Democrats polled by Quinnipiac, Sanders still loses to Clinton by 46%-31%. He does worse among moderate and conservative Democrats. Moreover, she does better than Sanders against Trump – and against Jeb Bush and Scott Walker too, both of whom would beat Sanders according to the Quinnipiac poll.
My point here is not to declare the race for the Democratic nomination over. As I noted in my response to a couple of commentators yesterday, polls this early are subject to change. More than one of you pointed out (see comments) that Clinton was leading Obama in national polls at this point in the race back at a comparable point in 2007. (For what it is worth, she was up on Obama in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll by less than 13%, at 38%-25.8% on July 31, 2007. As of today, Clinton is ahead of Bernie by about 40%, 58%-18.2%.)
It is true that at this point, Bernie is an unknown quantity for most Americans. It is possible that as he gains exposure, and his message becomes more widely disseminated, he will actually gain ground on Hillary. Locally, Bernie supporters remain convinced that this is what will occur. As Middlebury College student Lizzie Weiss put it in her story on Bernie that came out in the local Addison Independent yesterday, “Yet while Americans from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the Bay Area of California begin to rally behind Sanders and political pundits grapple with his campaign, there is a sense here, in his home state, that the rest of the country is just now beginning to learn what Vermonters have already long understood.”
His strongest supporters, then, are convinced that in time Bernie’s message will begin resonating with a growing segment of the American public. As evidence of his grass-roots support, they point to the roughly 100,000 Bernie supporters who turned out in a series of “house parties” at some 3,000 locations on Wednesday night. (This article gives a sense of what went on at a typical house party.)
In the meantime, they are not averse to criticizing anyone who might question the reality of #berniementum, as a sampling of these twitter and other online comments responding to yesterday’s post indicates:
“[–]VerySeriousBananaTennessee 9 points 3 hours ago
Yeah, you would expect a challenger to be losing for a while against a much higher in the polls frontrunner early in the campaign. Change doesn’t happen overnight… Plus, most of the Super Tuesday states the misguided author highlighted actually are some of the most Hillary-hating areas of the country, lol.”
“[–]vegetablesoup007 [score hidden] 1 hour ago
Yeah, but he’s losing less and less all the time….”
And my current favorite:
“Svetislav Meandzija @Cokan2015 50m50 minutes ago
@MattDickinson44 @BernieSanders it’s always funny when a looser calls someone a looser”
You get the picture. I may be a “looser”, however, at the risk of repeating myself (and fully understanding that it won’t mollify the true-blue Bernie tie-diehards) I’m not taking sides in this fight. What I am doing is taking issue with efforts by the national media in particular to create the semblance of a horserace for the Democratic nomination where – as of today – none really exists. (I’m giving the local media outlets a pass, since they are publishing in the heart of Bernie country.) That may change. Rest assured that when I see evidence that it does I’ll be the first to blog about it. In the meantime, I hope all you ardent Sanders’ supporters continue to #feelthebern! Alas, in my role as non-partisan blogger (it says so right in the title of my blog!) I’m wearing SPF 50+ SunBern blocker, so I can’t feel anything. Which may be too bad, since it appears to be doing wonders for Bernie:
As I’ve noted repeatedly in several posts during the current election cycle, the media loves them a horserace, and they are not above fabricating one if necessary to attract readership. This is particularly true when the clear front-runner is yesterday’s news – as is the case with Hillary Clinton. In newsrooms across the nation, nothing provokes more concern than the specter of writing stories month-after-month about how Clinton is crushing the competition. To forestall this, we’ve seen two narratives take root in the popular press this past week. The first is that Clinton’s support is softening. As evidence, journalists are citing the rise in her unfavorability ratings, as captured in this Gallup poll:
As the graph shows, Hillary’s favorable ratings have plummeted from the high 60% to the low 40%, while her unfavorable ratings have inched back up to where they were before she became Secretary of State. Of course, no one expected Clinton to maintain those high ratings as she transitioned from Secretary of State to presidential candidate, but still…. . Similar stories are told in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Clinton’s favorables/unfavorables are also underwater. Why is this bad news? Because, as Chris Cillizza reminds us, “Presidential politics tends to be dominated by personality and how people perceive their candidate choices.” The plain fact is that Clinton is not very likable.
Then there is the ongoing email saga. In the most recent development, the inspector general of the intelligence community found that some of the emails provided by Clinton included classified information, although there is some dispute regarding whether those items were classified at the time Clinton sent the emails. No matter – this latest tidbit fits nicely into the prevailing media narrative that the Clintons can’t be trusted because they see themselves as above the law. As a result, we have a spurt of recent news stories with headlines like “Is Clinton’s Tide Shifting?”, “Worrying Numbers for Clinton In Last Week of Polling” and “Four Poll Numbers That Should Unnerve Hillary Clinton”.
To be fair, all these articles are laced with the usual caveats about how Clinton is still ahead in the polls, etc., but the undeniable message is the same: the Democratic race for the presidential nomination is closer than that it should be – and it could very well tighten some more. Of course, it takes two candidates to make a horserace. This is where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes in. As Clinton’s political stock falls, at least in the prevailing media narrative, if not among voters, his goes up, the better to sustain the horserace narrative. In a fawning Atlantic piece that came out today Molly Ball gushes, “There’s something about Bernie.” She notes his huge crowds, his ability to draw campaign donations (in small bills!) despite not holding fundraisers and, not least, the fact that he possesses something Clinton does not: “An ideology.”
Her conclusion? “In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.” Yes, midway through the article Ball includes the usual hedges – Clinton is still leading in the polls, Bernie’s a longshot – but then there’s this: “Every Sanders crowd is full of die-hards like Bailey [a Bernie-supporter Ball interviewed], passionately committed to their unlikely hero. Every Clinton crowd, on the other hand, is full of lukewarm rank-and-file Democrats who will not hesitate to tell you they have some qualms about supporting her.” Ouch! To those on the Left, particularly those disappointed in what they see as Obama’s lukewarm embrace of progressive ideas, Bernie is a man whose time has come. As my colleague Bert Johnson points out, if you look at Bernie’s stump speeches from the early 1990’s you will find them interchangeable with what he is saying now about corporate power and economic inequality. What has changed is that Bernie’s message has now found a willing audience. Or so the prevailing media narrative would have one believe.
The problem with both these narratives is that they run up against stubborn facts. One is that candidate likability, Cillizza’s pronouncement notwithstanding, isn’t a very important influence on the vote, a point I’ve made multiple times before. Favorable/unfavorable ratings may be slight more indicative, but as Brendan Nyhan points out (see the chart above), her “favorable/unfavorable ratings at the national level have not changed as drastically as the coverage suggests. They averaged 47 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable in January and are at 44 percent favorable/48 percent unfavorable now — a relatively modest shift given the onslaught of negative coverage” she has received of late.
Moreover, if you unpack the trajectory of Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable ratings, you will see that her rising negatives are almost entirely rooted among Republicans and independents. Among Democrats she is both better known and viewed more favorably than any other Democratic candidate, including Sanders.
On the other side of the narrative, Sanders may be a “sensation”, but he continues to trail Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire according to the polls – and these are the two states that seem demographically among the most favorably disposed toward him. (In a transparent bid to lower expectations, the Clinton campaign is openly suggesting Bernie could win both states.) Once the campaign moves south, particularly on Super Tuesday, Bernie is going to be traversing decidedly less favorable terrain. As this chart from RealClearPolitics shows, many of the delegate-rich Super Tuesday primaries will be held in the South, in states with heavy African-American or Hispanic populations. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Bernie has, so far, elicited less-than-robust polling support among nonwhites.
Before my twitter and blog feed is inundated with negative comments from the #feelthebern crowd, let me remind my readers that I’m analyzing where the candidates stand right now, and not expressing a political preference regarding an outcome. As a longtime Bernie-watcher, I’m thoroughly enjoying his time, however brief, on the national stage, and I sincerely hope his run lasts beyond Iowa and New Hampshire if for no other reason than to see Bernie scowl one more time at another inane horserace question from Chuck Todd. Bernie is raising important issues – including concerns about the intersection of race and income inequality – that need to be discussed at the national level. But it is also the case that his “surge” in the polls is much more about pollsters dropping Elizabeth Warren’s name from their list of potential candidates as it is any discernible shift in support away from Clinton. It fits the media horserace narrative to speculate about the possibility, however improbable, that Clinton will stumble and Sanders will step in to steal the nomination. As of today, however, the facts say that is not going to happen. Bernie trails Clinton in all the important indicators; national polls, early state polls, fundraising and party endorsements.
Is there something about Bernie? Yes. Right now, he’s losing.
Another day, another poll showing Donald Trump leading the Republican field for the 2016 presidential nomination and another round of hand wringing by political pundits baffled by The Donald’s staying power. The latest WashingtonPost/ABC national survey has The Donald trumping his nearest Republican rival Jeb Bush by a whopping 10%, 23%-13%. That’s a gain of 18% for The Donald in just under two months, while Jeb’s support has remained static. To be sure, the poll was in the field just as The Donald’s comments regarding John McCain’s war hero status hit the airwaves, so the impact of this latest contretemps may yet to be fully felt in the polls. Still, it is clear that The Donald is exhibiting surprising – at least to the punditocracy – staying power as measured in national surveys of voting-age adults.
Of course, we have seen these types of candidate boomlets before. Political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck documented this process of discovery, scrutiny and decline in their book The Gamble, the definitive study of the 2012 presidential campaign. But Trump’s “discovery” phase has exceeded those of his 2016 Republican rivals in terms of size and duration and, so far, he has sustained and even enhanced his support during the ensuing period of scrutiny.
It is tempting to attribute The Donald’s polling success to some combination of his personal characteristics and his stance on the issues. Perhaps, as some pundits contend, The Donald has tapped into a vein of deep-seated anger among Republican voters. From this perspective, his blunt talk and forthright stance on controversial issues like immigration resonate with a good portion of likely Republican voters. Perhaps. But there is likely a more prosaic reason to explain the Trump phenomenon: he is exploiting the media’s tendency to view nominating contests through the prism of campaign tactics and especially candidate personalities, a point I’ve made in previous posts. Trump has decades of experience in attracting and manipulating media coverage, and he had drawn on that knowledge and training to issue a succession of attention-getting statements that have consistently kept him in the media spotlight. In particular, capitalizing on the media’s focus on candidate personalities, he has turned the Republican nomination contest into a series of personality-driven feuds between Trump and leading members of what might be called the Republican Party establishment. The latest exhibit is Trump’s testy exchanges with South Carolina Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, culminating in Trump’s decision to give out Graham’s cell phone number during a campaign stop yesterday. “I did it for fun and everybody had a good time,” Trump said during a Fox & Friends interview last night. No, he did it because he knew the story would lead just about every news outlet for the next 24 hours, which it did. Like him or not, The Donald has the media on a string, and they seem only too happy to help him exploit their own vulnerabilities.
Consistent with my argument, in a Monkeycage blog post yesterday Sides and Vavreck show data indicating that Trump has received a disproportionate amount of news coverage since announcing his candidacy. That has surely contributed to his rise in the national polls, much as I suggested in earlier posts.
But does the media have any choice in the matter? In a comment to my last post, Middlebury College student (and presidency seminar alum!) Becky Van Dercook asks, “My one question/comment regarding this post is although the media should be taking Donald’s candidacy seriously, do you think that they shouldn’t be engaging in the outlandish and offensive commentary that he is making at all? And if they do, how can the buffoonish …nature of his commentary be completely ignored?” My short answer is: no, they shouldn’t engage in his outlandish and offensive commentary and yes, they can ignore it. And they should. However, as I wrote in an earlier post, this does NOT mean relegating Trump to the entertainment pages. “Instead, journalists should take his candidacy seriously by pressing him on the details of his policy pronouncements, and helping the public understand the differences between the public and private sector. The sooner the media begins evaluating The Donald on the details of his policies and his governing expertise, rather than on his deliberately provocative comments designed to mobilize a disaffected public, the sooner The Donald’s political bubble is likely to burst.” It’s that easy. When Donald seeks the limelight by saying something outrageous, bury the statement and focus instead on what really matters in a presidential campaign. If you absolutely must quote The Donald’s more outrageous claims, at least put them in some type of real-world context.
Put simply, the media makes choices about what constitutes “the news” and how it should be covered. There’s no reason why Trump giving out Graham’s cell phone number should have led almost every news story yesterday. And yet the political punditocracy fell all over themselves to report it.
How likely is it that the media will follow my advice regarding how to cover Trump? Not likely at all. That’s because it has little incentive to do so. As Robert Schlesinger (another proud Middlebury graduate and presidency seminar alum!) acknowledged in his US News column yesterday, “’I’ll be honest, I burst out in giggles of delight when I saw the Washington Post/ABC News poll yesterday showing that Trump had opened substantial lead in the GOP field – not because I believe he has even the remotest chance of becoming the GOP nominee (though that would be fun too) but because it guarantees at a least a few more days of Web traffic Trump-mentum.”
Schlesinger is not the only journalist not-so-secretly rejoicing in Trump’s staying power. Despite the media’s harrumphing and hand-wringing over Trump’s “sideshow” candidacy and how it detracts from a discussion of serious issues, most journalists are absolutely giddy that rather than having to write months of stories analyzing meaningless polls and rehashing stale candidate biographies (Hillary’s pantsuits anyone?), they instead get to wax indignant about The Donald engaging in blood feuds with his Republican rivals. What could be better for a profession that has seen its audience and profit margins dwindling for years? The Donald is the gift that, so far, keeps on giving!
Of course, it is worth remembering two important points. First, polls this early in the nominating process have very little predictive value in terms of forecasting the eventual nominee. Second, these are polls – not votes. To date, I know of no research indicating whether Trump has put together the infrastructure for an effective ground game in Iowa or New Hampshire. Political science studies indicate that the best way to get people to the polls is to contact them personally. This is particularly crucial in low-turnout affairs like the Iowa caucus. There’s no evidence as yet that Trump has developed the necessary organization to do this. So, for now, Trump is exhibiting a lot of sizzle. But we have yet to see any steak.
In the short run, of course, the lack of a campaign organization is not likely to dampen media coverage of The Donald. But the next time you see a political pundit publicly weeping over what The Donald is doing to political discourse in this country, pay no attention to those crocodile tears. The media loves The Donald almost as much as he loves himself. And they are more than willing to show their love by engaging in the endless self-flagellation that is the essence of covering Trump’s run for the presidency. Please, please, stop me before I write another Trump story!
Never mind. He just said something newsworthy. Thank you Donald! May I have another?
Addendum 2.29 p.m.: Greg Dworkin points to still another poll, this one in the field after Trump’s war hero comments, that still shows The Donald leading the Republican pack. So, the early evidence suggests his criticism of McCain apparently hasn’t hurt The Donald among Republican voters.