HORSE RACES

Posted in Election 2012 on August 15th, 2011 by Ed

The media love elections. They are already in full saturation campaign coverage mode more than 14 months prior to the general election. In theory this should be a positive. After all, people like me are constantly complaining about the lack of political coverage and general substance in the news. And here it is: months and months of unrelenting attention paid to the presidential election. Great!

Unfortunately the media love elections because they are good for ratings, and they are good for ratings because the media have turned elections into a sporting event. Instead of Marv Albert telling us which team is leading and trailing throughout the basketball game, we have blow-dried anchors constantly reporting poll results to let us know "Who's ahead?" even though the answer is almost always "no one" once margin of error is taken into account. Instead of broken down, concussed ex-NFL players giving color commentary while scribbling on the Telestrator, we have washed up campaign consultants (Paul Begala, Bill Bennett, Alex Castellanos, etc.) letting us know What It All Means and What Voters Want. Academics call the excessive emphasis on day-to-day poll results "Horse Race coverage", a phenomenon that eliminates issues and reduces most coverage to reporting how various groups or individuals reacted to a campaign event. The latter – the instant big-picture analysis phenomenon – is just a lazy, stupid way of boiling the election down to a 25 word explanation for lazy, stupid viewers.

These phenomena have been affecting the way elections are covered for years. They are beginning to affect the election itself.

The Ames (aka Iowa) Straw Poll is the dumbest event in politics by a country mile, even compared to legendary shitshows like CNN/YouTube debates, the Thanksgiving sparing of a turkey, and the national conventions. Nothing says Scientific Poll quite like a $30 fee to participate. And nothing says Representative Sample quite like 15,000 non-randomly selected Iowans. This thing is so stupid that a candidate could dramatically alter the results by investing a pittance (in the context of modern campaigns) in a bunch of tour buses and admission tickets for the straw poll gathering. About $50,000 could easily bring 1000-1200 ringers to boost a candidate's showing, which is amazing when we realize how little distance in raw vote totals separates the candidates.

1. Michele Bachmann: 4,823
2. Ron Paul: 4,671
3. Tim Pawlenty: 2,293
4. Rick Santorum: 1,657
5. Herman Cain: 1,456
6. Rick Perry: 718
7. Mitt Romney: 567
8. Newt Gingrich: 385
9. Jon Huntsman: 69
10. Thad McCotter: 35

Yep, for a minimal investment, Herman Cain or Rick Santorum could have finished a strong third. Instead, the real third place finisher – Tim Pawlenty – quit. He quit the race because he finished third in this utterly ridiculous non-event. High school student council elections are more rigorous than this thing. The organizers auction off floor space to the highest-bidding campaign and candidates bribe attendees with barbecues and whatever else they feel like giving away.

I try not to watch much cable news these days, but what I have seen since the end of the debt ceiling "drama" has relentlessly hyped the Straw Poll. Tbe media have managed to turn this non-event – previously won by the likes of Pat Robertson – into a crucial barometer of candidate viability. Despite the silly rules that make this neither a real election nor a real poll. Despite the fact that Rick Perry was not on the ballot and Romney, who won the Poll in 2008, basically sat it out.

It is possible that there are behind-the-scenes issues that prompted T-Paw to quit the race. I'd like to think so, because the idea that hype could turn this organized silliness into a meaningful component of the selection process for the president of the United States is too depressing. If he had money trouble or simply didn't see himself being able to compete in the crowded field, why wait until the day after the Straw Poll to withdraw? Would another 1000 votes in this farce have made a difference?

The media have an agenda in our elections, and it is to fill airtime profitably. Election fever drives ratings and ad rates. The more mini-elections or "big events" they can create, the more they benefit. Something like the Straw Poll feeds into the pathology of 24-hour election coverage, providing a story that can be breathlessly anticipated, endlessly hyped, reported with numbers and rankings despite the fact that it is ultimately meaningless.

But hey, Bachmann's #1! How could 4,800 Iowans be wrong?

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