Columns

Asker ’17: Perverting the 2016 presidential race

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The third Republican presidential debate received no shortage of media attention. Before, during and after the debate, the homepages of mainstream newspapers were rife with speculation: News analyses guessed at the possible implications of every little interaction and chose winners based, subjectively, on who was loudest, who was most successful at prevaricating and who launched or deflected the most criticism. Strangely, coverage of the 2016 presidential race resembles that of a spectator sport, swarming with so many insignificant details and so much speculation that it rivals even the fanaticism of fantasy football.

In particular, I have in mind superfluous analyses like Frank Bruni’s column “Ben Carson and Donald Trump Lack Electricity in a Charged Debate,” the New York Times article “The Disciple Strikes Back: Rubio Bests Bush in a Key Moment,” Politico’s “Bush walks into Rubio’s Trap: For Jeb’s supporters, it was a night of crushing disappointment” and the copious real-time analysis of the debate — leaving aside 24-hour news channels, which of course are much worse offenders. Besides being a waste of time to read, the articles listed epitomize the media’s overanalysis of the theatrics of the debate and the campaign trail to the detriment of the democratic process.

Who dissed whom and who spoke the most or the loudest or the least shouldn’t matter, yet the media focuses on these trivialities. Presumably, news companies focus on such things because they think they understand average American voters and believe that such trivialities will stick with them and in turn affect the polls. That is, what shouldn’t matter in fact does matter, so they think it’s newsworthy. But promulgating petty facts and naming winners and losers by consulting these facts risks influencing the field by laying the foundation all wrong.

Did Rubio get the better of Bush in their exchange regarding Rubio’s Senate attendance? Sure. Rubio’s quick-witted comeback left Bush stunned. At the end of the day, however, this altercation should be meaningless — none of the issues the United States faces were in play, and though Rubio’s laxness was in question, no serious character traits integral to the presidency were on the line. So Bush “losing” the silly argument shouldn’t translate into him actually losing, i.e. dropping in the polls or dropping out of the race. Yet the media has billed the interaction as a crushing blow to Bush and a triumph for Rubio and made a big deal out of nothing, out of something unsubstantial that certainly should not influence the race. Bush isn’t a less qualified nominee because he lost the squabble, but the media has sure made it seem that way.

The trouble is that framing the exchange as a make-or-break moment turns it into precisely that. Voters see the headlines, see that Bush was bested and because of the encounter’s salience, become convinced that they’re supposed to judge Rubio and Bush on that basis. They judge Bush less favorably and Rubio more positively, and the polls, along with ambivalent donors, shift accordingly.

So inadvertently, the media plants the idea that the encounter is significant and contains content relevant to evaluating presidential candidates by prominently displaying it on front pages, which are spaces that consumers associate with content that matters, with important things. The fact that we all know exactly what happened in the scrap points to how front-and-center coverage of it was — it would have been hard to avoid learning of the kerfuffle if you read or watch the news regularly.

Some may think this is only speculation, that the relationship I’ve described between the media and the electorate is doubtful, tenuous at best. But there is good evidence that the media actually affects voters through their coverage choices. According to John Sides, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, Donald Trump’s poll numbers were so high and sturdy over the summer in large part because of the undue attention his candidacy received from mass media. As Sides put it in a data-driven piece for the Washington Post back in July, “Has this attention to Trump driven his poll numbers? Almost certainly. Think about it this way: Voters don’t change their minds without new information. No one wakes up on June 17 and randomly decides on their own that Donald Trump should be the Republican nominee for president. People’s minds change because they are hearing information that they haven’t heard before. In this case, people are being bombarded with news stories about Trump.” Moreover, Sides points out that since Trump received a “larger-than-usual spate of media coverage,” his surge in the polls was larger and more long-lasting than usual.

Importantly, as he elaborates in another piece, Sides believes the media’s disproportionate coverage is the best explanation for Trump’s rise, in contrast with other explanations, like his unique appeal to angry Tea Partiers. And Sides dispels the notion of reverse causality by saying that media coverage increases before poll numbers do, so though there is some feedback loop, the coverage does more to drive the polls than vice versa.

This Trump tangent shows that the media can and does shape the primary through what it chooses to cover. Unfortunately, what it chooses to cover too much of the time is what sells, because after all, news companies are just that — companies. And a suspenseful narrative of cutthroat competition and celebrities clashing, with performance metrics to boot, sells quite well. But from what’s been said, it’s safe to say we’re better off leaving guilty-pleasure entertainment to E! News.

Republicans are right to be mad at the media after the debate, but not because of its alleged liberal bias or unfair questioning. Instead, they should be mad at the media for arbitrarily swaying public opinion and the presidential race in a manner that ignores candidates’ merit, all to get clicks.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.