Let’s take a cool, hypeless look at what has happened so far in the race for the presidential nominations.
As of last month, Iowa was considered to be a tight three-way among Edwards, Clinton, and Obama. New Hampshire was expected to go for Clinton by a healthy margin, with Obama a competitive second and Edwards a distant third.
So what happened? I could almost say ditto, but not quite. Obama broke out of the pack to win Iowa by a convincing (though hardly overwhelming) 8-point margin, with the other two in a near-tie for second. New Hampshire went exactly as projected, except that Obama came a little closer than expected.
Of course, all this was presented as a wild set of gyrations back and forth. Now we are told that McCain and Clinton have the momentum, Romney is on the ropes, and Edwards — well, he was too anti-corporate for the corporate media to have conceded him much chance to begin with, and they certainly don’t give him any now.
Here are the pledged delegate totals (i.e., those awarded for success in caucuses and primaries — not counting the undemocratic “superdelegates” that the, ahem, Democratic Party uses to make sure it doesn’t risk being too democratic):
Can you imagine how different both of these races would be if the standing of the candidates was actually presented in proportion to these results? Supposing, for example, the media portrayed Romney as the most consistent Republican candidate so far (which he is), but (to be fair) facing some doubts over his failure to win a big one yet. (Of course, he did win Wyoming, which is the only Western state polled so far and, though low in population, has two fifths as many folks as New Hampshire, but I digress.) Supposing McCain was portrayed as flush with victory, yes, but also only 4 delegates ahead of Fred Thompson, well behind the two leaders. Supposing the Democratic race was portrayed as a competitive three-way race, with Edwards a little behind the other two. Can you imagine how much differently voters might behave in subsequent contests, with these emphases and options placed before them?
And that’s exactly the point.
As recently as the 1980’s (okay, kids, that may seem like a long time ago to some), presidential primaries were covered more or less the way I’m saying. The result? In the sixties, seventies, and eighties we had long, satisfying nomination contests, often not resolved until the late stages — at which point most of the country, not just 2%, had had the chance to vote and affect the outcome.
Granted, the earliest states (which even then were Iowa and New Hampshire) had a disproportionate influence, but not that disproportionate. They were critical bellwethers and momentum-builders, and everyone knew their importance, but their votes were understood as the early stages of a long campaign. And as a result, they were that. The influence they had on voters in other states came from the early exposure of their results — no more, no less. The news media made clear that these early tests were important, but they spent most of their time covering the campaign stops, issues, and controversies, plus the actual votes. Polls were, of course, also bandied about, but there weren’t nearly as many of them. Above all, there was not the endless emphasis on predicting who would win, the way there is now. Sure, there were predictions — mostly in analysis pieces rather than news stories. But the horse race really didn’t dominate the coverage.
A lot of people have complained about the horse race emphasis of today’s election coverage, how it trivializes the issues that the races are supposed to be about. That couldn’t be truer, but there’s another aspect that’s perhaps even more sinister. The spin actually dictates the outcome – not totally, but to a quite stupendous extent. This doesn’t work as much in the general election, where party ties and approval or disapproval of the incumbent are the dominant factors. But in primaries, where almost everyone’s vote is potentially up for grabs and people are looking frantically for a new savior’s bandwagon’s, the perception of an advantage is an advantage — a huge one.
This is why winning Iowa and New Hampshire always counted a lot more than the number of delegates there would justify — because it gave you momentum, creating the impression in a lot of voters’ minds that you might be the new hero. But the media didn’t use to do very much to further that impression, other than passing along the info about the outcomes. They would relate who was getting votes and delegates, and this would in turn influence who people voted for in the bigger contests. That was just ordinary spin.
Now what happens, however, is that the coverage — not just the analysis, but the actual “news” coverage — already assumes how voters are going to react to the early outcomes. It doesn’t just present someone as having not done as well as expected, and then let the voters, possibly, gradually drive that person out of the race — provided the candidate doesn’t stage a comeback somewhere along the line. It presents someone as having not done as well as expected, tells the voters that that person is therefore unelectable and a wasted vote, and thereby immediately drives that person out of the race, without any possibility of a comeback.
It’s not just simple spin any more — the natural influence of information on perceptions. It’s spin squared — the manipulative influence of information about anticipated perceptions on perceptions. This information is given before the actual vote even occurs and helps trigger a self-reinforcing runaway effect as soon as someone starts winning. That’s why we haven’t had a long-distance presidential nomination fight since 1988.
If this year’s election season turns out to be more drawn out and suspenseful than any we’ve had in a long while, allowing real issues to be fought out by real voters across the country, it won’t be any thanks to the corporate media. Rather, credit the sheer ineptitude of their predictions for their failure to become self-fulfilling prophecies — coupled with a new-found independent streak in the electorate.
And realize that even so, their machinations are still foreshortening our options and impoverishing the campaign. Candidates who oppose American imperialism are locked out of debates; candidates who are anti-corporate are endlessly mocked. But beyond these blatant biases is the more insidious one that directs our attention away from anyone whom we “have no chance” of voting for–and therefore ensures we really don’t vote for them.
Spin squared = media usurpation of the voters’ choice. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that out.