A Response To Allen and VandeHei

One big fact has largely been lost in the recent coverage of the Democratic presidential race: Hillary Rodham Clinton has virtually no chance of winning. … The real question is why so many people are playing. The answer has more to do with media psychology than with practical politics. ... One important, if subliminal, reason is self-interest. Reporters and editors love a close race — it’s more fun and it’s good for business.

Politico Executive editor Jim VandeHei and chief political writer Mike Allen present an unremarkable thesis about the Democratic presidential nomination – Obama’s probably gonna get it -- and support it with a provocative explanation: the media (I assume here they mean the press corps, not the broader media ) is consumed by, is driven by, self-interest in prolonging the idea of a competitive Democratic nomination. The authors posit this self-interest (“the answer has more to do with media psychology”) as the largest reason why, one would assume, there is still a race, rather than a nominee.

The first point is unremarkable, but the authors present it as a novel, even brave, conclusion. It’s not. Any regular visitor to Chuck Todd’s commentary in First Read, any viewer of David Chalian’s political commentary on ABC News now, anyone who has studied John King’s futuristic charts and graphs on CNN, anyone who has listened to the major commentators – Russert, Greenfield, Stephanopoulos, on the evening news – anyone who has read a story by Adam Nagourney on the presidential race, anyone who has listened to or read Jonathan Alter, and I dare say, regular readers of this blog – have known since before the March 3 primaries that the mathematics of the delegate selection process pose a near-prohibitively difficult challenge for Sen. Clinton. And many in the Clinton world know this. Indeed, the authors quote an anonymous senior Clinton adviser as saying there’s only a 10 percent chance that she can win.

So why does the media cover the race as if it matters?

Allen and VandeHei are surely right when they point out that the Clintons are a very unique political couple.

The media are also enamored of the almost mystical ability of the Clintons to work their way out of tight jams, as they have done for 16 years at the national level.

But they write that the media has “partnered” with the Clintons in portraying the race as tighter than it is. Apparently, VandeHei and Allen do not believe that the media has been sufficiently incredulous at all the goal-post moving that Mark Penn and Co. have been doing. I think the media have been properly skeptical, but let’s concede to them a bit of their premise: that the Clinton campaign is pretty good at managing expectation.

I don’t think the rest of their thesis holds up too well.

Take the argument that this race is “good business.” Really? While it is true that cable networks have seen revenue from higher ratings, newspapers have not seen any appreciable bump in their ad sales, and the television networks are not at all happy about the cost of the elongated nomination. Take a poll of the top fifty news division presidents or newspaper publishers and I’d bet that most would concede that the net financial effect of their political coverage has been negative.

There are many more factors that the authors do not mention. Indeed, the authors’ own publication, the Politico, is as responsible as any single publication for printing the type of horse race coverage that, in the eyes of the authors, are overstating the relative odds of the horses. The Politico has two excellent bloggers who provide moment-by-moment coverage of the race. Thanks to the newspaper’s magical pathway to Matt Drudge’s inbox and attention span, the Politico’s horse race coverage often disproportionately influences how editors and producers assess the day in political news. I don’t begrudge the Politico for its traffic ranking. Indeed, I envy them for it. But one would expect that Allen and VandeiHei’s own paper would at least take tentative steps in tamping down the enthusiasms of Ben Smith for writing about Hillary Clinton. They haven’t, thank goodness, for Smith is (a friend and) a fantastic political reporter whose instinct for the news is often spot-on and ahead of the curve. Allen writes a well-read daily political playbook. He hasn’t stopped covering Hillary Clinton either.

It’s true that editors like to find the point of conflict in a particular narrative and then base their coverage around that conflict as if it were the narrative itself. One of the reasons why the media jumps into the absurd word games – what did Barack Obama mean by “typical” – what did Bill Clinton mean by “two nominees who love America” – is that the candidates’s words are very easily reduced to the emotional impressions they make on their listeners out of context. All of this falls under the category of normal media coverage. The media spent way too much time on Sam Power and Geraldine Ferraro for this reason. a In the former’s case, Power’s comment was newsworthy for a small reason – that an Obama adviser called his opponent a monster – and for a larger reason – it reflects the near-hatred that the two campaigns have for each other personally right now. The media focused on the former and not the latter, because the former was more accessible and easier to explain; it was easier to put Power’s remarks in the context of the daily back and forth between the campaigns about who is nastier and dirtier and harder to focus on why they’ve become so nasty, at least toward each other.

The authors dispatch the Clinton superdelegate argument with ease; indeed, it is not a terribly persuasive brief. That Clinton can’t come up with a math argument is one the main reasons why reporters are convinced that Obama will win the nomination.

I am sure that both authors have heard, in another context, that “it’s not really our job,” all other things being equal, to push people out of the race. Indeed, it’s not our job to push people into the race. I think the media’s influence here is overstated – conspiracy theorists can’t even begin to describe the group-think that would compose a symphony with Ron Paul and Mike Huckabee and the end of the Clinton dynasty and a risen from the dead John McCain and a Rudy Giuliani who fails to campaign anywhere but Florida. Ok, this is a straw man. Yes, the press corps is influential; yes, it certainly should not describe a reality it does not see.

But it is not clear what the reality is. At least not to me.

Although Barack Obama is likely to win the nomination, surely that ought to be the beginning of the analysis. For starters, why is Obama likely to win? Not because an overwhelming majority of Democrats want to see him as the nominee, but because his campaign planned to contest the caucuses early, they pulled together a coalition that does well at caucus meetings, and the Clinton campaign arrogantly assumed it could win the nomination without worrying about the small stuff (or states).
That there’s a consensus that OBama will win the nomination because of this strategic back-and-forth should throw itself up as a caution to VandeHei and Allen – perhaps the news business, by closing the books on 2008 so early, will magnify and distort, rather than reflect, the level of Obama’s support.

What has yet to be decided – and what the media will not, thankfully, decide – is how. Will he win it with a strong majority of the popular vote? Probably not. A strong majority of earned delegates? (likely—but something we really had no way of knowing until last week, when momentum for new primaries in Michigan and Florida died.) What does Barack Obama’s demographic coalition look like? Why are so many Democrats voting against him? Why are so many Democrats voting for Hillary Clinton?
The “10 percent” that the Clinton adviser is hanging onto is premised on the unlikely event that that some fatal flaw will be discovered about Barack Obama. Perhaps he has a second family living in Idaho… that type of thing. The authors dismiss this as silly. Surely it is not an argument. But it’s not dumb. Two weeks of discussing Obama’s relationship to Rev. Jeremiah Wright has pushed Obama’s net favorability ratings down and did indeed freeze, the superdelegates. Obama’s negatives in some of the robot polling are above 50% now.
Since this is verging on 1,500 words now, let me just end with a thought about the party elders. John Edwards, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid – if these folks came together and threw their weight behind the nominee, Hillary Clinton would probably drop out by the end of the week. But the party elders have in some cases explicitly abstained from making such a determination because in their minds, the racetrack is open and horses, to beat that metaphor to death, are still trotting around.