HORSE RACES

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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30 Responses to “HORSE RACES”

  1. Arslan Says:

    What really disturbed me is how the media so cheerfully banters on about which candidate has raised the most money. Many of us remember the bullshit they tell you as a kid about how "anyone can be president." Now we get excited over the fact that our elections are in fact decided mostly by money, which also means whoever can garner the most support from the rich. And they call this a democracy.

  2. Ike Says:

    Every evening as I sit down to read the news I am appalled that any of these candidates is taken seriously, and terrified when I realize that one of them just might have a chance of beating President Obama. Now I'm pretty pissed at the President, given that his campaign promises of ending wars and fixing the economy have been just a bunch of wind up my ass. When I voted for him I was thinking more along the lines of Clinton than Carter. What we need is an LBJ, who'll pull congress-people into his office and yell at them until he gets what HE wants. Instead we get plaintive speeches asking us to cause "change" (no scratch that, compromise) by email, twitter, and facebook "like." Fuck That Shit.

    I know Richard Nixon was a polarizing ass-hole who caused a lot of harm to the country and the world, but at least he didn't believe that God was telling him to do it.

  3. harmfulguy Says:

    No "Rick Parry" write-ins?
    Colbert, I am disappoint.

  4. chautauqua Says:

    Good to have you back, Ed.

  5. Middle Seaman Says:

    The only watchable part of the news is weather and even that is quite often wrong. Agreed, the media with its donkey racing does cause damage. Many people start to believe their crap. A friend buying at Trader Joe's told me today that we must control the deficit. He heard is on TV and of course has a safe job.

    We all will be better off reading several individuals who we respect instead of reading or watching the media. The New Yorker has a piece about Iowa by a highly respected media guy; it is crap. For our own sanity we must close the doors and shut the windows.

  6. FMguru Says:

    The media love elections because they require no effort to cover. You just follow the campaigns around, run clips of them speaking, blow up every little glitch into a news-cycle dominating mini-scandal, go wall-to-wall to cover primary elections and runoffs and conventions, bring on an endless stream of talking heads to discuss this news cycle's latest kerfluffle. It's predictable, the costs are manageable, you can present it as Important To The Foundation Of Our Democracy, and (most importantly) you can fill hours of coverage without bringing up an stories that might upset a sponor or some sliver of the viewership. Every minute spent asking some reporter on Michelle Bachman's bus about "what's the mood of the campaign like the day after the Ames straw poll?" is a minute not spent talking about Wall Street or global warming or our useless wars or doing investigative journalism or researching and reporting a piece on the effect the economy is having on welfare reform or suicide and divorce rates among soldiers that are being sent out on their six consecutive tour of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan. Say, whatever happened to those two countries? We spent a trillion dollars and generated a couple thousand American corpses over there, but I guess none of that is as important as NEWS FLASH – Cain campaign rumored to be considering withdrawl. Join us now in our War Room as we debate what effect this would have on the race for the Republican nomination with our four analysts…

  7. Nancy Says:

    I'm an old and disillusioned "boomer" (hate that word), but Ed brightens my day and gives me hope. Carry on.

  8. anotherbozo Says:

    Like Nancy says.

    And I wanted to add that even sillier than early campaign coverage is the constant popularity polling of Obama. When did this get so out of hand? Every day there's a new poll on his popularity, not to mention Congress's (whatsoever THAT may mean), government in general, etc. If Obama's "approval rating" is at 38% today, who is sillier, people who respond to such a dumbass question or the press for reporting it? Or the pollsters for their stupefyingly simplistic survey?

    What a carnival.

  9. c u n d gulag Says:

    God, who cares about the candidates?

    I want to see the new set CNN will have for this election for Wolf and "The Worst Political Team on Television." It's the only time Wolfie still gets a stiffie.
    No more holograms, Wolfie!
    I want to see the actual person transported into the studio, ala "Star Trek."

    And let see what technical wonders MSNBC will do for Chuckles Todd and Chris Matthews. God knows they can't let Rachel anywhere near being one of the hosts – she actually has a clue about what she's fucking talking about.

    And FOX is not only going to go all futurama with their set, but they're going to shorten skirts and lower the front on the tops to the point where the mons veneris will be visible by viewers at home whether they's looking up the female hosts skirt, or down her cleavage.
    Security will have to be tight at night to keep Steve Doocy from breaking into everyone rooms and trying the outfits on while singing "I'm So Pretty."
    Oh, and in light of the soft-porn FOX political coverage, make sure to give Grandpa a defibrillator for Christmas.

    And that still leaves CBS, ABC, vanilla NBC, and PBS.
    I'll probably watch the BBC.
    They have a far better clue than our "news" people, who, after chasing the candidates, then chase each other, and quote one another, far more than they report on candidates and their actual positions.

    Hey, politics is a horse race, so why shouldn't our coverage of it be horse shit?

  10. Andy Brown Says:

    It's easy to see how the political system has been corrupted by the obscene amount of campaign cash that now needs to flow INTO to politicians' proverbial coffers. (Influence peddling, yadda yadda yadda.) But it is also corrupted and distorted by the obscene amount of cash that flows back OUT OF those coffers. Most of it gets plowed back into media companies (in the form of television, radio and print ads) – as well as consultant salaries. This is literally billions of dollars. And so we get a mass-market political theater that is created by and for the pundits and media companies that reap most of the rewards. And that has virtually swamped any access to actual democratic discourse or practice – at least for those who aren't politics-junkies.

  11. Elder Futhark Says:

    Soylent Green is people too, my friend.

  12. John Says:

    Above all else, always remember that the American news media are for-profit entities. Their job is not to give you the news, their job is to make money. Profit trumps news, it is their legal obligation as corporations.

    This is why we get completely inane shit like that laughably bad "hologram" event. Nobody in that studio thought that was a good idea, and not a single goddamn one of them believed it was anything other than some cheap, half-assed green screen nonsense. But what they all knew was that it would impress morons, and had a chance to increase ratings, which meant increased profits.

    The modern American news media is a pathetic carnival of desperation and resignation, where the clowns wear business suits instead of funny shoes.

  13. DS Says:

    Ike. When exactly did Obama promise to 'end the wars'? If I remember correctly, he campaigned on phasing down the presence in Iraq, which has happened, and increasing the presence in Afghanistan, which has happened. When oh when will people actually start listening to what politicians are actually saying rather than creating their own narratives based on little more than personal animosity of the other candidate? Obama campaigned on a horrible healthcare plan, charter schools, an aversion to same-sex marriage, increasing the presence in Afghanistan. What made you believe that he was "progressive" or "of the Left"?

  14. bensbias Says:

    Somewhat unrelated question:

    When you say washed up campaign consultants, are those guys not wanted near any campaign or do they intentionally choose to go the "analyst" route because it's more profitable and less work? Honest question.

  15. ladiesbane Says:

    I think T-Paw has been looking for an excuse to drop out. The burgeoning disgust at what it takes to run (among other things, repackaging yourself as T-Paw) was naked on his face, just as it was on McCain's. (Unfortunately for McCain, it metastasized only after Palin had been surgically attached to his life support system.)

    Pawlenty has shown support for term limits, extending SCHIP, background checks for guns, keeping the space program, and other reasonable things that would have had to be discarded should he have continued. Not only does he lack what it takes to win the nomination, he lacks what it takes to be a successful whore on the campaign trail.

    Pawlenty may also have been secretly appalled that Bachmann skunked him, only because she is from his home state and he knows he's better than she is. They have a similar take on the issues, but he's a quiet budget-balancer, and she is a quiet headcase with a nail gun, ready to "fix things."

  16. judith weingarten Says:

    We're awed by the wisdom of 4,800 smart Iowans but Bachmann *paid* for 6,000 votes (via Angry Bear):http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0811/Bachmann_breaks_6000.html
    That means 1,200 *really smart* Iowans.

  17. bb in GA Says:

    Now a Straw Poll has a lot in common with…

    Straw…

    which is related to…

    Scarecrows.

    Alright Bs and Gs, sing along now with the Scarecrow, Dorothy and Toto…

    "If I only had a brain!.."

    //bb

  18. acer Says:

    Methinks it's a lot easier to get a few thousand PaulTards in one place than it is to End The Fed.

    The straw poll would be the Golden Globes of politics if the media weren't so desperate for an consensus angle and a "frontrunner," particularly an "exciting" one. (Hence their nonstop fellatio of Bachmann and Perry at the expense of Mittens, T-Paw, and others who don't make particularly great copy.) As it is, TP probably dropped out because he knew they would inflate the embarrassment of losing this rigged bullshit, focus exclusively on Bachmann and Perry, and likely stop giving him a chance.

    Assuming the straw poll and the caucuses will make or break a candidate is a version of the gambler's fallacy that becomes true BECAUSE the press believes it. They need "momentum" and "game-changers" early on, and if a candidate like Giuliani ignores their spin on things and their emphasis on IA and NH – both backwater states with small, rural populations – he can't win.

    PS: I'm still somewhat confident Perry is Fred Thompson 2.0. If that unctuous rube is your "game-changer," things are really not good.

  19. Fearguth Says:

    Wouldn't you like to party with those 35 Iowans who paid $30 each to vote for Thaddeus McCotter?

  20. acer Says:

    McCotter: Because we haven't given up on Iraq.

  21. Ken Says:

    Fearguth: Did they pay, or did McCotter?

    Does anyone have a list of which candidates were paying the "entry fee"? The Politico piece from judith weingarten suggests Bachmann was paying, and I guess Romney wasn't since he wasn't participating, but what about the others?

  22. xynzee Says:

    Ed,

    Please flick me bb's mailing address. I want to send him a nice refreshing ale. bb you don't mind real Aus'tryan beer, over that canoe sex stuff you're used to? ;)

    x

  23. c u n d gulag Says:

    bb,
    Great comment.

    I'd just like to see the Democrats get 'a heart,' and Obama, 'some nerve.'

  24. Vinny Says:

    I liked when Pawlenty said of Bachmann:
    "She says she's got a titanium spine. It's not her spine we're worried about. It's her record of results. If that's your view of effective leadership with results, please stop because you're killing us."
    Don't worry T-Paw, Iowans only like her because she has the spirit of John Wayne Gacy. You should have countered that your spine is made of Unobtainium assuring you of the youth vote.

  25. Robert Says:

    This reminded me of why I stopped talking to my friends about politics. Very few of them actually wanted to hear MORE than they already knew, even if/especially if they already agreed with me. When did we Americans (those of us who are) fall prey to the illusion that Government is some alien entity that has grafted itself onto Society, rather than a natural and inevitable aspect thereof?

  26. mothra Says:

    Who the fuck is Thad McCotter?

  27. acer Says:

    @mothra:
    http://lmgtfy.com/?q=thad+mccotter

  28. Mike Says:

    On the other hand … your description of the straw poll:

    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.

    … sounds like the general campaign in a microcosm. So maybe it's a decent predictor after all.

  29. Mike Says:

    Elder Futhark: FTW!