Party, Not Press

Over at NPR, Ken Rudin asks: “Have The Media Already Decided The GOP Race?” and compares the current GOP contest with WH 1972, in which George McGovern had very little national support at all until much later in the process (via Jaime Fuller).

It’s worth knocking this down once again, as long as people are still saying this. Rudin’s post mentions the media (“we”) four times, but completely overlooks the real actors who matter here: the political party. It’s absolutely true that the press can go off on its own and create bubbles for candidates without serious support from party actors, as the Donald Trump mishegas demonstrated earlier this year, but in most cases that ends about the same way that the Trump fiasco did: it just fizzles out without any real effects on anything. Moreover, any candidate who does have support from party actors will eventually gain media attention. That’s not to say that it all works out perfectly with media attention perfectly tracking party support; it’s more that when they do diverge, as they do all the time, it’s not likely to matter very much.

A second point is that while I and others often lump together the nomination contests beginning in 1972, it tends to be highly problematic to do so. Why 1972? That marks the beginning of the post-reform era, since the Democrats completely overhauled their process after the 1968 election. However, as I and others have argued, the early cycles in the new reformed process were quite unsettled. As a result, parties had great difficulty influencing the results, and media effects were unusually large. Since the 1980s, however, that’s mostly reversed, and nominations now can mostly be understood as party actions. The press is just not all that important, at least not as an independent causal factor.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that there is no actual good reason for either parties or the press to be fair to candidates. They should be fair to voters, either individually or as they exist in organized groups and constituencies. But candidates? Nope. There is simply no reason for the press to automatically believe that vanity candidates Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are entitled to the same level of coverage as plausible nominees Rick Perry and Mitt Romney.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.