Most political scientists remain convinced that the Great Trump Surge won’t last long into 2016. The reason is simple: few Americans are following politics in any depth, so polls and focus groups aren’t yet capturing informed opinions. Donald Trump won’t face any real scrutiny from Republican voters until a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses, when his bombast won’t seem so presidential.
Probably. The known truth in that theory is that few Americans follow politics in more than a superficial way, and fewer still do so when a national election is more than a year off. This does not mean most people shouldn’t vote, for the highly informed minority has its own biases and does not necessarily vote on the basis of the common good. It does mean that there are limits to analyzing voter behavior, or trying to describe a national “mood,” so far ahead of an actual election.
Jonathan Ladd, at the Mischiefs of Faction blog, sums up the problem: “All news media organizations throughout U.S. history have had to face the tough fact that only a minority of the public is interested in what political elites would call informative or high quality political news…. There are different strategies for dealing with this fact, but you can't just wish it away.”
One strategy is already obsolete: forcing political news on television audiences with few viewing options. Thus, the nostalgia for Walter Cronkite and nightly newscasts when most people could get only three or four TV channels. When all the major networks aired news programs at the same time (or broke into entertainment programs with “breaking news”), people had no choice but to watch.
Another strategy is on its way out: the daily newspaper. As Ladd points out, newspapers became popular through sports and crime reporting, as well as entertainment features like comics and puzzles. “Even though newspapers could have made money without political coverage,” Ladd writes, “reporters and newspaper owners wanted to cover politics. So they covered lots of other entertaining topics and included political news as well, all bundled in the same newspaper.”
Ladd suggests that some popular websites now use this model, with Buzzfeed and Vox luring readers with quizzes and listicles but also offering substantive political coverage. I’m not sure that they’re as successful as newspapers had been, especially since many people view their candy-like content through social media sites like Facebook and may never even see the more serious content. If you’ve ever paid for newspapers and magazines, you probably have had the experience of leafing through an issue multiple times—first devouring the lighter material, then tackling the “think” pieces as you run out of other stuff to read. With so many demands for attention on the Internet, I’m not sure that any website gets a second pass from a reader; if an article doesn’t grab your attention immediately, it’s probably gone forever.
Ladd brings up another approach: “for political parties, activists, or politicians to directly subsidize money-losing political news organizations.” He cites The New Republic, American Prospect, National Review, and Weekly Standard as publications that limp along on the handouts from “ideologically sympathetic owners and/or donors.” He does not include broadcast outlets of a clearly ideological nature, such as the highly successful Fox News and its more diluted liberal counterpart, MSNBC, perhaps because their political coverage is often indistinguishable from gladiator-type entertainment.
In a few months, more voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, at least, will pay attention to politics, though they will get a lot of their information from campaign commercials and televised debates rather than from news reporting. Until then, it’s important to keep perspective. If Scott Walker isn’t overtaking Trump in the polls, it’s not necessarily because voters have rejected his plan to replace Obamacare, and if Jeb Bush seems to be treading water, it’s not likely because of a popular uprising against Common Core standards. In analyzing polls this far ahead of the 2016 election, a lack of interest explains more than anger does.