playing the horse race game

Late last week, we issued a press release on the trend in voter registration, with the the phrase “Warning Sign for Barack Obama” in the subhead. The release was quickly picked up by Politico, National Review Online, US News (Ken Walsh’s “Washington” blog), Andrew Sullivan, and the Charlotte News & Observer. In contrast, our much more ambitious and nuance-filled study of young voters proved relatively hard to place. I would give our PR firm, Luna Media Group, lots of credit for the success of the latter release, but comparing the two products tells you something about the way the news media work today.

Basically, any information–no matter how complex and arcane–that seems relevant to whether a given candidate will win the next election interests reporters. Any information–no matter how broad and durable–that doesn’t help predict the winner falls to the wayside.

Back in 1996, CNN political director Mark Hannon explained that his network conducted daily polls because they “happen to be the most authoritative way to answer the most basic question about the election, which is who is going to win.” I’ve saved his quote all these years because it seems so characteristic of the whole profession.

In my view, “who is going to win” is absolutely not the most important question. Voters need to know what the candidates stand for, what they have done in the past, how government works, a range of opinions about the issues, and information relevant to assessing the candidates’ positions. For example, they need to know what each of the Republican presidential candidates would do about the federal budget and what the federal budget currently pays for.

Reporters are leery of those matters because (I suspect) policies and issues seem complicated and dry; they can be intimidating to write about; and they involve value-judgments as well as simple facts. In contrast, reporters feel they are experts about who will win, and they see that as a value-neutral topic. (It’s a prediction, not a recommendation.)

Yet making predictions does transmit values. It suggests that you’re wasting your vote by choosing a candidate with low poll numbers, it implies that your only role as a citizen is to vote, and it depicts politics as a horse race in which winning the next election is the overriding goal. It makes doing anything to win seem natural and acceptable; to expect anything else looks naive.

Incidentally, the last time I complained about horse-race coverage (in June 2011), my example was the unfair treatment of Rick Santorum. If he does well in Iowa, the same dynamic that frustrated him then will boost his candidacy now, for equally arbitrary reasons.

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