Despite the fact that public surveys failed to predict the winner of the 2016 election, polling stories still dominate news coverage of the emerging 2020 race. A few days ago, everyone was discussing a poll out of Iowa and today people are examining a new poll out of California. The survey was conducted by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, and it found five aspirants polling in double digits: Joe Biden (22 percent), Elizabeth Warren (18 percent), Bernie Sanders (17 percent), Kamala Harris (13 percent), and Pete Buttigieg (10 percent). Even though there are 19 other declared candidates, none of them attracted more than three percent of the voters’ support.
California has the largest haul of delegates in the nomination fight, and they’ve moved their contest from the very end to the beginning of the process, making it truly important for the first time. Home state senator Kamala Harris is counting on a win there to propel her into the top tier, and she may be somewhat disappointed to be polling in fourth place in this survey. On the other hand, not a lot separates the top five, so she can comfort herself that she’s in the mix. Some of her colleagues in the Senate, like Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar aren’t so fortunate.
The New York Times has noticed the rise of Elizabeth Warren and also the surprising inclusion of little-known South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg in the competitive tier. They explain this as a consequence of their unique understanding of the political moment.
Unlike many of their rivals, who built their political careers in the era of carefully chosen, less-is-more press interaction, the two have placed their fate in the hands of TV bookers and the gods of online viral content.
While going about it in different ways, both candidates have succeeded in getting mentioned more than their competitors.
Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren began their rise in the public polling as they became more frequent presences on cable TV. Since April 1, the most-mentioned Democratic presidential candidates on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, according to data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive.
This presents a chicken-and-egg question. Are they polling well because they’re on television or are they on television because they’re polling well? Given that their rise in the polls seems to have followed their coverage rather than preceded it, I think one could argue that they’re taking off because they’re getting exposure.
But there’s another related question. What did they do to merit the extra attention? Why did they get booked rather than other candidates like Governor Jay Inslee of Washington or Beto O’Rourke of Texas?
In Warren’s case, it’s easy to credit her early strategy of rolling out position papers at regular intervals. It’s harder to understand why the media became so fascinated with Buttigieg.
Whatever the explanation, it will now become self-reinforcing. There will be more stories about Buttigieg because he’s clearly a contender based on the polls. He seems relevant while Montana Governor Steve Bullock and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio do not. So, Buttigieg is up in the polls because the media covered him and now they will cover him because he’s up in the polls.
Something like this phenomenon has been blamed in many quarters for catapulting Donald Trump over his rivals in the 2016 Republican contest. The media covered him so much that it was like free campaign advertising, and it drowned out what his competitors were trying to say.
This makes it imperative that presidential candidates have a good media strategy at the beginning of the process. It’s not exactly the best way to determine who would be the best president, but at least Elizabeth Warren has found a way to win the game by using substance. She gets attention by talking about her detailed plans rather than by insulting her rivals and giving them nicknames. It’s quite an accomplishment to win the superficial battle by waging an intellectual one.
On the other hand, the candidates who are wallowing at the bottom of the field can comfort themselves that they might be one good viral video away from launching themselves into contention. In this social-media-driven day and age, it’s probably their only hope.