Playing the Ponies: How the media track presidential races
Twenty-five years ago I was given the job of covering Michael Dukakis, the eventual 1988 Democratic presidential nominee, for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. This time, the political editor told me, we are going to try to focus on the issues, not the horse race.
In the end it was, as before and since, the horse race that we and the rest of the press focused on. The political editor’s vow was high-minded, but it did not make much sense to me then. And, perennial as it would become in newsrooms across the country, it does not make all that much sense to me now.
What are “the issues,” anyway?
Every presidential campaign has a stack of position papers on just about any issue you can think of. Are political reporters supposed to work their way through the stack, comparing and contrasting the positions of Candidate A and Candidate B for the benefit of an uninterested public?
Or should the news organization itself decide which issues matter and devote coverage to them? (It’s the economy, stupid reader!) Or should we in the media survey voters on which issues they think are important and focus on those?
What if we conclude that the voters are more concerned with personalities than issues in choosing their next president? Should we still devote our attention to issues because we think issues should matter? And isn’t it a race that we are covering anyway?
I do not mean this sequence of rhetorical questions to suggest that issues, however defined, may not matter in a presidential campaign. Or that news organizations do not perform a useful service by giving the issues that matter a proper going over. Nor am I proposing that coverage of presidential campaigns has not changed over the decades—or that there is no room for improvement.
No single journalist did more to change the way presidential campaigns are covered than Theodore H. White, author of the “Making of the President” series of best sellers that ran from the 1960s Pulitzer Prize-winner through the 1972 book that, thanks to Watergate, nearly blew up in White’s face. As it happened, the research assistant who cobbled the Watergate story together for White in the spring of 1973 was me.
Before the “Making of the Presidents” series, campaign coverage focused on substantive pronouncements and proposals—the issues—as hints of what a candidate would do in office. But these did not much interest White. He lived in New York, not Washington, and the beat he sought was out in the wards and the parishes, the bars and the Rotary clubs, the granges and the union halls. He discovered gold in the previously unreported arcana of endorsement mongering, delegate hunting, campaign financing and the demographics of race, region and ethnicity. His story was the race, which he covered like the war correspondent he had been when he reported on China for Henry Luce in the late 1930s and 40s.
“The wrecker of political journalism,” the screenwriter Frank Mankiewicz called him, only half-jokingly, in 1988. Mankiewicz was the manager of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. “You give a speech on the U.S. getting out of the Persian Gulf and reporters only want to ask, ‘Did the Dukakises offer you watermelon?’ or ‘How many delegates did Paul Simon give you in Illinois?’ That’s all people care about anymore: politics, not government.”
Nowadays, “Teddy White” stories remain the norm, though because of the current crisis in journalism there are fewer boys (and girls) on the bus to write them. The cheap alternative to on-the-ground campaign reporting is provided by the seemingly endless supply of survey data that rolls onto computer screens from a host of pollsters of varying degrees of competence and disinterestedness.
The surveys provide stay-at-home journalists with sufficient wherewithal to follow the race and write about it, but without the human contact, the sights and sounds and smells, that give a campaign story life. Surveys also create illusions: that voters have settled opinions worth reporting early in a campaign cycle or that there is a single national electoral contest rather than 50 state presidential races.
So maybe it is time to go back to focusing on the issues after all. The challenge is to figure out how best to do it.
The simplest approach is just to examine those subjects that get put on the table by the campaigns themselves, however real or unreal they seem to be.
At this writing (the end of May), a small but intense debate has broken out over the extent to which President Obama has increased government spending. This is a factual matter, subject to a certain amount of definitional dispute. It is also a poor substitute for a discussion of the meaning of the federal deficit and the size of government. So be it.
Meanwhile, the claim that President Obama was born in Kenya has re-entered the campaign, promoted especially by the developer Donald Trump, the country’s foremost “birther.” Mitt Romney refused to reject this view shortly before attending a fundraiser hosted by Trump, but later said he disagreed. To be sure, it is not the president’s birthplace but Romney’s apparent readiness to pander to the Republican fringe that is the issue—a legitimate one.
Then there are issues that particular interest groups manage to push into public consciousness. The Catholic bishops’ response to the Obama administration’s contraception coverage mandate is a fine current example. Whether “religious liberty” is truly under threat, as the bishops claim, is a matter of debate. But there is no question that, at least prior to the Supreme Court’s decision on health care reform, it was an issue worth writing about.
Such examples could be multiplied. They are the kinds of limited things that political reporters have little trouble addressing because they easily lend themselves to short narratives and sound bites. Also, examples like these are an integral part of the cut and thrust of a campaign.
But they are not the kinds of big, complex things editors have in mind when they say they want to address “the issues” rather than the horse race. Those issues are all but impossible to integrate into campaign coverage.
Sure, there will be (in The New York Times and The Washington Post and maybe even the newsweeklies) long take-outs on “health care reform” and “financial regulation” and “economic policy” and whatever it is we are calling our military adventure in Afghanistan. But they will stand apart from the ebb and flow of the campaign, and they will not have much impact on it.