As I begin to cover my 10th presidential race (this one as a columnist for Roll Call), I have been recalling what I have learned since I first went to Iowa in early 1980 with a candidate named Bush. Almost everything that I know about presidential politics flows from the worst mistake of my career: the 1984 New Hampshire Democratic primary.
In those days, Newsweek and its archrival Time were printed on weekends — and many subscribers did not get their copies until Wednesday. As a result, newsmagazines had traditionally tiptoed around Tuesday presidential primaries by running fluffy features on the candidates’ wives or heralding an obscure campaign aide as the greatest strategist since Hannibal crossed the Alps.
That was too timid for me on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, especially since former Vice President Walter Mondale was lapping the field. With Senator John Glenn fading and Senator Gary Hart never catching on, Mondale was the surest election favorite this side of the Soviet Politburo.
So with unassailable self-confidence, I premised my primary-week lead story for Newsweek on Mondale’s romp to the nomination. In fact, I can recite the key sentence from memory: “Mondale’s lead in New Hampshire appears unassailable.”
That Tuesday, as I flew to New Hampshire for the primary, I was serenely confident that I had made the right call. Sure, there were a few whiffs in the final weekend polls that suggested the race was tightening, but I had resisted adding any hedge words to my Newsweek article for fear of marring my crystalline prose style.
What I did not know — in those days before cell phones and laptops — was that the first wave of leaked exit polls correctly showed a Gary Hart landslide. As I jauntily strolled into the Sheraton Wayfarer (then the favored hotel for reporters), the first person I saw was a friend from another magazine holding a copy of Newsweek. He looked at me with a reproachful stare and said in a soft voice, “You blew it.”
Three decades later, I still hear those three words every time I am tempted to make a glib prediction about the primaries. That massive long-ago mistake has instilled in me a quality that is sadly too rare in today’s political journalism — humility.
Make no mistake, I still sometimes fall into the snares of premature certainty. I recall with chagrin asking Rick Santorum a few weeks before he won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, “Do you ever get discouraged by your low poll numbers?”
This slavish worship of the latest poll numbers obscures the reality that primary and caucus voters make up their minds at their own convenience — and not according to the dictates of impatient pundits. In New Hampshire in 2012, according to exit polls, 46 percent of GOP voters said they picked a candidate within a few days of the primary. And half of New Hampshire Republicans in 2008 told exit pollsters they decided within a week of voting.
But TV ratings are not boosted by anyone displaying uncertainty about poll numbers and expressing humility before the voters. These days, the only three words that pundits can’t say on television are “I don’t know.” Print and online publications get clicks by ballyhooing the latest poll numbers, no matter how meaningless. Nobody is going to headline a story, “Trump Leads In New National Poll with Little Predicative Value.”
Ah, Donald Trump — the unavoidable Republican elephant in the room.
Since I began covering presidential campaigns in 1980, I can think of nothing as unfair as the disproportionate media attention that has been lavished on Trump from the beginning. No primary candidate in history (not even Barack Obama in 2008) has ever had most of his speeches broadcast live on cable TV. No political figure has ever been consistently allowed to call into the Sunday interview shows instead of appearing in person. For much of the campaign so far, the only way other Republican presidential candidates could get attention was to be attacked by Trump or to attack the bumptious billionaire.
Two or three decades ago, newspapers and television networks would have had the journalistic self-confidence to temper their coverage of Trump after the initial burst of curiosity. But now with the financial future of the news business resembling the outlook for the Greek economy, the media doesn’t dare say no. As long as Trump gets TV ratings and clicks, journalistic balance gives way to the balance sheet.
This saturation coverage, of course, fuels Trump’s poll numbers, which are then used to justify the saturation coverage. And the merry-go-round keeps spinning.
When his support levels stayed high despite vicious attacks on John McCain and Megyn Kelly, many political reporters prematurely decided that Trump was immune to political gravity. Instead, what the phenomenon illustrated was the enduring gospel of Ronald Reagan’s image-maker Michael Deaver: The pictures and the blanket coverage matter far more than what is being said on the screen and in print.
Feeding this ratings-driven frenzy was the irresponsible decision of the cable networks to trim the field for the GOP debates by initially using irrelevant national polls. As a result, a Republican foreign policy expert (Lindsey Graham) and the longest serving governor in Texas history (Rick Perry) dropped out of the race largely because of being exiled from the main stage. Now Rand Paul has apparently become an un-person for tonight’s Fox Business debate because he only met the arbitrary polling criteria after the arbitrary deadline.
What makes this capitulation to ratings and clicks by the news media so depressing is that these decisions are empowering Trump — the first serious presidential candidate in modern history who exudes disdain for the office of the president. Trump revels in his ignorance, claiming that he gets his foreign policy advice from the Sunday shows and displaying no understanding of what the nuclear triad is. He refuses to say anything substantive about policy — unless you believe that the Mexicans will pay for a wall along their border. Trump’s level of personal invective on topics from rapists crossing the Mexican border to banning all Muslim visitors is worse than George Wallace’s rhetoric during his 1968 segregationist third-party campaign.
As a columnist originally inspired by Teddy White’s The Making of the President 1960, I grieve for my profession. I hope this gloom is temporary and that political journalism will redeem itself as the presidential race becomes serious and voters begin to make binding decisions. For we are beyond the moment when we can afford any more trompe l’oeil coverage of a shallow, but loathsome, political figure named Trump.
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