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‘Caveat emptor’: 2024 will be the biggest stealth campaign in US history

It's time for campaign reporters to leave horse-race coverage in the barn

In this photo illustration, the logos of Threads and Twitter are seen displayed on a smartphone.
In this photo illustration, the logos of Threads and Twitter are seen displayed on a smartphone. (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Gett)

“Everything becomes a big horse race story — and you guys don’t even know where the horses are.”

That perfect-pitch putdown of the political press corps came courtesy of David Axelrod, who then was Barack Obama’s top strategist, at a Harvard conference following the 2012 election. 

Axelrod’s point was that campaign reporters had been overreacting to evanescent gyrations in the national polls while missing almost everything else about the race between Obama and Mitt Romney.

I resurrected that Axelrod quote because, in hindsight, the 2012 campaign belongs to an innocent long-ago age when politics was still comprehensible and took place, for the most part, in public. 

But now, just a year before the 2024 Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, we are on the cusp of the biggest stealth campaign in history. 

Think of all that’s changed since 2012. 

Traditional television viewing has been upended with the rise of streaming and the explosive growth of cord-cutting. At the end of 2022, according to a study by the analytical firm Samba TV, only 48 percent of American households had a cable or satellite TV subscription. 

Social media is in disarray with the help of the self-destructive antics of Elon Musk at Twitter. The sudden emergence of Threads — from the wonderful folks at Facebook, who helped destroy local news — demonstrates that no one can predict the contours of the social media landscape that American voters will traverse in the fall of 2024. 

In 2012, disinformation mostly referred to hyperbolic claims and thinly sourced charges in standard 30-second TV spots. And a Russian bot might have conjured up a video game character or a new brand of vodka, rather than an attack on the integrity of American elections. 

But earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty issued a sweeping injunction forbidding the federal government from coordinating with technology companies to combat foreign election interference. As a result, the cautionary words that everyone should paste on the back of their smartphones during this election cycle are: “Buyer Beware.” Or, if you prefer Latin: “Caveat emptor.”

The biggest change in politics may be the slowly eroding power of the TV spot. 

According to Samba TV, half of American households watch 93 percent of all television ads. What that means for a campaign or a Super PAC is that no matter how big your TV ad buy, you will probably be missing almost half the voters. 

Of course, campaigns can run similar ads on social media. But while every television ad is monitored — even a 3 a.m. spot on a Swedish-language station — there are no legal disclosure requirements for commercials on, say, Twitter or Donald Trump’s Truth Social. 

So, as we shift away from the TV era, it is akin to politics moving from the town square to a privately owned shopping mall with burly security guards.

Too many political reporters and campaign mavens also operate under the glib assumption that most Republican primary voters spend their lives glued to Fox News, while rabid Democrats are wedded to MSNBC or CNN. 

But a new academic study of cable news viewership by political scientists David Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley and Joshua Kalla of Yale University paints a different portrait. 

According to their analysis of data provided by the TV ratings service Nielsen, only 30 percent of all Republicans watch Fox News for even a minimal hour per month. And, similarly, only 27 percent of Democrats flick on MSNBC or CNN for more than 60 minutes a month.

Other trends make it harder for even the most horse-race-obsessed reporters to follow the 2024 horse races. 

As the 2022 elections proved, quality public polling is getting harder to find. The collapse of local news means that newspapers — with a few exceptions — no longer have the resources to fund polling at a time when costs are soaring because of the low response rates. 

So almost everyone is taking shortcuts. Instead of reliable House polls on individual races in 2022, we increasingly had to make do with the national generic poll numbers about what party voters planned to opt for. 

The zigzag result: The generic polls missed both the strength of the Democrats on a national basis and the collapse of the party in House races in New York and California. And no one predicted the closest House race in the country — Lauren Boebert’s 546-vote victory over Adam Frisch in a nominally safe Republican district in Colorado. 

Ron DeSantis may well join this historic list of epic flameouts in Republican primary politics: George Romney (1968), John Connally (1980), Phil Gramm (1996), Rudy Giuliani (2008) and Jeb Bush (2016). 

But his social media strategy hints at how much is going on in Republican politics beneath the waterline. In Politico, Ian Ward deciphered all the nutcase right-wing imagery in a 73-second social conservative Twitter video shared by the media team working for DeSantis.

You can almost imagine an old-time paperboy shouting, “Extra! Extra! Get your DeSantis codebreaker here. You can’t tell your memes without a scorecard.”

What was striking about the Axelrod critique of the press in the 2012 campaign was that the Obama-Romney battle was unusually stable, with nothing significantly changing the contours of a race in which the true polling numbers barely moved.

In contrast, 2024 threatens to be explosive and unpredictable whether because of Joe Biden’s age or Donald Trump’s rage. Having endured a pandemic and an insurrection over the last four years, the American political system is frayed and disarrayed. 

This is the moment for horse race reporters to acknowledge that we are not omniscient no matter how confident you are supposed to look on TV. In fact, between now and November 2024, we will be collectively lucky if we can even figure out in which direction the horses are running.

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