|Send In The Clowns!|
A lot of people nourish the hope that the frivolous and distracting spectacle will soon end. The press will darken the debate stage and focus attention on the voters who will actually be making the decision. As one New Hampshire voter told the New York Times, “When the tent comes down and the circus leaves town, maybe we’ll elect a president.”The piece tries to make the points that:
- The move from New Hampshire and Iowa as the early deciders to the endless stream of debates has made TV presence more important than stump-presence (or the hard work of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire).
- Party leaders would usually inform primary voters. Today it's TV.
- The use of polling to determine who gets onto the all-important debate stages is a terrible misuse of polling data (especially early poling data).
The Endless Stream of DebatesIn the 2008 cycle Obama, Hillary, and Edwards had 25 televised debates. In 2012, the "disastrous" never-ending Republican total? Twenty. So was it the number of the debates, the fact that they were on TV, or, erm . . . the candidates that made 2012 and, today, 2016 such a debacle? Well, the general consensus is that Hillary and Obama had a great stream of debates that left the ultimate winner stronger.
It isn't how many debates--it's what you say in them.
It is true that TV presence has become more important in national elections than stump-presence--but that has been true since Kennedy vs. Nixon. It isn't the result of some master-plan by the media to create drama: it's a natural result of the medium.
The Party Leaders and IA/NHThe conventional wisdom (and the math) is that party leaders determine the nominee through endorsements, control of the conventions, and super-delegates--as well as influence. Today Hillary--the presumptive nominee--has an unprecedented number of endorsements and is favored to win the primary. The Party has decided. On the Republican side, most of The Party power-brokers have not weighed in yet. Those that have, thus far, have chosen either Jeb or Rubio (both of whom trail Trump and Carson).
In Iowa and New Hampshire, the poll leaders track the national polls (Trump and Carson).
The Debate Cut-OffsIt's true that right now there are only 5 real contenders for the Republican nomination: Trump, Carson, Rubio, Cruz, and Bush. It would make a certain amount of sense to limit the next GOP debate to just them However, you can't have both The Media knocking nine candidates off the stage and, at the same time, complain that The Media is controlling the narrative. On the Democrat side of the house, the debates started with six and then moved to three candidates. It is likely that Sanders will hang on to provide a left-wing foil for Hillary--but in the end, the Democratic debates are just practice for Hillary vs. The GOP Candidate.
Was it The Media that gave a historically-large field to the GOP while delivering a regular one to the Democrats? Maybe if you count vying for a Fox News position--but otherwise, no. The GOP field this year was stuffed with Governors--the "high-quality" candidate material. The two young Senators that are doing "the best" are doing far, far less well than the outsiders--that isn't because of The Media. It's because of the electorate.
What's Really Going On?The difference between the GOP and the Democratic process isn't specifically their bases: the Democrat's left-leaning base (young, white, social-justicey) really wants Bernie Sanders--the socialist from Vermont. The more moderate center, however, isn't having it.
On the GOP side, the primary voters largely can't decide who they want--but about 50% of them want either Trump (an alpha-dog charismatic TV star) or Carson (a highly religious man with a great life-story and a history of good works). Asking if these people pass a presidential litmus test doesn't seem to be on the menu (despite much being made of Obama's thin resume).
There's another problem: GOP Moderates. Way, way too much of the GOP is friendly to ideas like shutting down Mosques, quixotically trying to deport 11MM illegal immigrants, and so on. The "Moderate" spectrum of the GOP vote is still super-hostile to Islam and overly friendly to Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson. It isn't just a <20% faction.
While significant Democratic blocs may embrace "extreme ideas" like abortion-on-demand or social justice ideas around race or income distribution, this is not manifesting in their political behavior: in other words, for most democrats, it's not a deal-breaker. Hillary may pay lip-service to these ideas--but everyone knows she is in bed with Wall Street--and nobody cares.
Finally, there is a problem of the GOP candidates. In any sane universe guys like Rick Perry, Scott Walker, or maybe Chris Christie--not to mention Jeb Bush--would be heavy hitters. They are successful governors with strong conservative resumes and powerful fund-raising networks (and also, real charisma--anyone who has seen Perry or Christie in their natural element can attest that they know how to be likable). These candidates have all basically tanked (including Bush, although he's hanging on).
The blame for this cannot all be laid at the feet of a fickle electorate. Yes, Christie had his Obama-hug--which is hardly a policy issue. And yes, Bush has his last name--but running against Clinton that should not be fatal. However, these issues are not the primary ones. Perry self-destructed spectacularly in 2012. Walker blew through his money, rested on his (early) laurels, and unleashed a gaffe-streak that would have finished off Ronald Reagan.
Jindal alternated between sensible and crazy--but faced with Trump his campaign looked more like a series of stunts than a strategy--and he's unpopular at home, which doesn't help. Chris Christie proved in the undercard last time that he's still got the "stuff"--but in an overcrowded field that just isn't enough. Oh, and there's the Obama-hug.
The problem isn't so much "the damage" (Hillary is damaged too)--but that everyone tried to get in all at once. For a slew of candidates in their 40's (Rubio, Cruz, Jindal) it seems that picking 2016 to make their time was probably a bit overly optimistic. These factors combine with a base that has been burnt on "electability" with McCain and Romney to weaken their selling points--and then diluting it further with the flood of contenders.
ConclusionsBlaming The Media for the Clown-Car effect doesn't explain why it isn't happening on the Democratic side and it doesn't explain why the candidates on the Republican side have to shift so far right that they pretty much can't get back to the middle. That's a function of The Electorate--not The Media. The Donald Trump effect is an outlier: he's a one-of-a-kind candidate, to be sure--but he's using The Media at least as much as it's using him (see his negotiations over debates).
The media-theory also doesn't account for the effect the crush of candidates has. Campaigns gasping for "oxygen," like drowning people gasping for oxygen will do crazy things--and they don't care who they pull down as they go under (in this case, it might be the GOP).
Now, there are ways The Media is impacting things. For one thing, Trump is a ratings machine and The Media is fed by ratings. That isn't a plot: that's cause and effect. Obama used his "celebrity" in a similar fashion in 2008. Secondly, the GOP Media, including blogs and talk radio (and Fox News), has done its best to create and market a vision of the Republican high-command as losers and sell-outs When you constantly call Obama a tyrant, you have to accept that some portion of your readership is going to take you literally.
The Media has its part to play: it amplifies ambitions (if you want to talk to the nation about national defense, running for president is a decent way to get to do that) but it is not creating the circus effect. That's home-grown.