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Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy

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My new Nation column is called What Ailes the Media? (A biography by Gabriel Sherman clarifies the Fox impresario’s role in his network’s deceptions.)

Alter-reviews: Jason Isbell, Suzy Bogguss, Steve Earle, Loser’s Lounge and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

1) Jason Isbell

I’ve seen a lot of music of late and felt pretty lucky to have done so. It began with a performance of Jason Isbell and his terrific band at the American Songbook series at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Jason put out what many people think is the most worthwhile album of last year, Southeastern, and I see that he won all kinds of awards. The show was being filmed and the full 400 Unit, named after after the psychiatric ward of a hospital near Muscle Shoals, (with horns flown in from Birmingham that day) and while the show had a certain amount of hyper-seriousness, it also rocked in a way that justified all of the accolades and then some. Isbell has a remarkably winning stage presence and a fine band, and the songs sound even better live. Yes, "Cover Me Up" and the powerful "Elephant" kicked proverbial posterior but my favorite was the unlikely encore of “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” We can all look forward to many more such albums and shows, now that Isbell has straighened out his life and has an excellent  fiddler/wife Amanda Shires to keep him on the straight and narrow. Check out the rest of their schedule.

2) Suzy Bogguss

A second recent highlight of my music-going year so far was the Highline show to celebrate the release of Lucky, Suzy Bogguss's 12-song album of Merle Haggard songs. Merle is one of the weirdly under-rated songwriter, which is particularly odd, given that he has sold more records than almost anybody else on earth and nobody disputes what a terrific singer he is. But there it is and so Suzy Bogguss’s idea to bring her beautiful voice and appropriate reverence to these songs was an inspired idea. The performances themselves are beautiful and she had her band with her from Nashville and, while the performances were loose—it was their first gig—they had depth and warmth—a lot like Suzy’s voice. The highlights, if I were forced to pick them, were "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink," and "Today I Started Loving You Again."

And Suzy’s fine new album reminds me of another fine one from my good friend Rosanne Cash, The River and the Thread, whom I’ve not seen perform in a while, but it’s a beautiful meditation on the South and Rose’s relationship to it, both through her father’s story as well as her own. The Times magazine profiled Rosanne here.

3) Steve Earle

The following night, I got to visit on the first of my friend Steve Earle’s residency at City Winery. Each show of the four he’s doing with a special guest—Steve’s last T-Bone Burnett-produced album, The Low Highway, is great too. These shows, however, are based on songs requested by fans on the website and then picked from a bowl by Steve on stage. It’s a gimmick but a good one because it allows him to go deep in a way that might otherwise appear to be an act of (just) ego. Here he gets to do that but he gets to look like a great guy—and to tell all those great stories again—at the same time. I fear the next three shows are all sold out though, so you’ll have to keep your eyes out for Steve somewhere else.

4) Loser’s Lounge

A night later, I made it to Joe's Pub for the first of the Loser's Lounge five show tribute to the Velvet Underground. This too made me feel awfully lucky to live in the greatest music city in the world and stupid for not going to all of the Loser's Lounge shows. It also reignited my admiration for the weird and wonderful talents of Tammy Faye Starlight, as Nico. What is "Loser's Lounge," you ask? (Loser's Lounge is "a bi-monthly tribute show based in NYC where local talent pays homage to the pop music greats of the past.") Next up is their Carly Simon vs. Linda Ronstadt show...

5) The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Oh, and the kid went to see Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (with Wynton Marsalis) performing its first family concert of the year: Jazz For Young People Family Concert: Who is Dave Brubeck? at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. She said it was great but I could not get much more out of her than that. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s schedule is here.

Now here’s Reed:

Toward Better Invisible Primary Press Coverage: Fewer Polls, More Policy
by Reed Richardson

The purpose of the press in a free society is to advance the public’s awareness along a continuum of information and context. What defines the value of news is how far along between the starting point of the unknown and the ending point of ubiquity a story takes us. When journalism gets stuck on either of these polar opposites, then, it betrays one of the fundamental expectations of its audience: “Tell me something I don’t know.” This is precisely the dilemma plaguing the Beltway media’s mostly worthless coverage of the 2016 “invisible primary” right now.

The blame for this failure falls squarely on the political press. Its insatiable appetite for the next candidate, the next campaign, the next election invariably leaves it straining to cover races so far in the future there’s little to no actual news yet. So it must simply create some, which is where the press’s heavy, institutional bias for process stories and horserace coverage kicks in. This fascination with “Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in? Who’s out?” necessitates a correspondingly simplistic dramatis personae of winners, losers, favorites, and underdogs, all cast as part of series of flimsy, poll-driven passion plays. The end result is that the Beltway establishment keeps trying to repackage as news the same old story that we’ve already known for months, if not years: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic front-runner and there is no Republican front-runner.

Nonetheless, every news organization wants to recycle this narrative to own the news cycle for a few days. No surprise then, that since the beginning of November, there have been ten national polls conducted on the 2016 presidential primary field. They’ve all confirmed the very same thing, even though each of them tries to interpret a blip down for Chris Christie or a blip up for Mike Huckabee as something other than statistical noise. This CNN poll from last month at least admitted that, two years out from Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton is crushing every other potential Democratic candidate and the GOP field is “a pack of potential White House contenders with no obvious frontrunner.”

How silly have these attempts to find a fresh narrative gotten? Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney—who denied any interest in a 2016 run to The New York Times nearly a dozen times—was for some reason included in a Boston Globe poll of the New Hampshire primary. That he was leading with a small plurality in the poll speaks to just how pointless these surveys are right now. But then again, without them, you can’t write completely absurd columns with obvious, click-bait headlines like: "Mitt Romney in 2016?"

Even the conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat emphasizes “There…is…no…GOP…frontrunner.” Not so fast, rebuts another pundit, who somewhat unconvincingly points to a BetFair market snapshot where Marco Rubio bests Jeb Bush 16.4 percent to 12.8 percent to be the GOP nominee. Hard to believe a 3.8 percent lead is yellow jersey worthy at this stage of the presidential race. Plus: here’s what a real prediction-market front-runner looks like: just a year or so out from Election Day 2008, BetFair gave Hillary Clinton a 45 percent chance of becoming the next president.

The fact is that during the next eighteen months betting markets and polling results invite a superficial, zero-sum understanding of the 2016 campaign. As Joseph Jackson noted in his 2002 paper, The Party Animal: The Front-runner in the Presidential Invisible Primary: “[I]invisible primary media coverage correlates strongly with preference poll standings, but does not correlate as well with the winning the nomination.”

A perfect example: in March 2006, ABC News’s political insider blog The Note published its first invisible primary rankings of the 2008 field. Looking back on it reveals the political press’s embrace of conventional wisdom and lack of real foresight. Sure, it was correct when it gave John McCain the best chance at being the GOP’s nominee, but it ranked as runner-up then-Virginia Senator George Allen, a man whose political career would be essentially over within the year. And of the eleven names listed as potential Democratic nominees, one was notably missing: Barack Obama. Consider the GOP’s most recent primary season, when polls registered five different front-runners, along with a Ron Paul surge and Michele Bachmann boomlet. This turbulence fueled a boom-bust cycle of press coverage, which caused much of the press to overlook the steady consistency and massive infrastructure edge of Mitt Romney, the eventual winner.

This polling instability looks to be the rule rather than the exception. Since 1980, primary candidates who led in the early fall before the primaries have gone on to become the party’s nominee just six out of thirteen times. In the three most recent elections, the early polling in August or September has a very poor track record in predicting the competitive primary winner, missing in 2004 with Gephardt (Kerry), in 2008 with Guiliani (McCain) and Clinton (Obama), and in 2012 with Perry (Romney).

Now, it’s true that there is news being made during the invisible primary, but it’s not to be found in obsessing over front-runners and also-rans. Instead, the stories of real long-lasting value would look at how 2016 candidates are quietly building donors, hiring staff, and adopting policies that will make them more appealing and accessible to primary constituencies. So, rather than waste time and resources on meaningless polls comprised of party cattle calls and head-to-head match-ups, news organizations and the public would be better off listening to someone like Georgetown University political science professor Hans Noel when trying to maximize the impact of their coverage.

Noel, the author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform explained in this 2011 Columbia Journalism Review interview that the press needs to shift away from its general campaign mindset this far removed from Election Day:

In a primary election it’s so much more about the terrain, and the metaphor of the horse race can’t capture that. If the narrative were structured in terms of, the party’s having a hard time deciding which kind of candidate it wants to have—which I do see from time to time—that would be much more useful, I think. It’s harder, because you don’t have just one person to talk about. And you can’t just run off a poll and use that as a springboard for a story. But I think it’s possible to do it.

Note here the phrase that cash-strapped news presidents and non-stop deadline-pressured editors hate to hear: “It’s harder.” Still, several news organizations have dedicated resources to the invisible primary beyond just their standard insider-y coverage. With one party’s front-runner all but assured (until she’s declares otherwise), it’s not surprising then that seven different news organizations now have a reporter or producer fixated on covering Hillary Clinton. But as the Times’ initial stab at this demonstrated last August, a heavy emphasis on the Clinton persona can come off as tenuously connected—at best—to her political aspirations.

As an alternative, Noel suggests taking an inverted approach to covering both a front-runner like Clinton as well as the nascent GOP field. Rather than cover a Clinton or a Rand Paul in Iowa, news organizations should cover the constituencies Clinton or Paul are talking to in Iowa. “It’s daunting to say, go and understand a whole state,” Noel acknowledges. “It’s harder than it is to follow around a particular candidate. But that is the place where the questions need to be asked.” The same approach could be taken with policy issues before Congress, Noel adds. “You could also, for example, assign whoever is paying attention to congressional politics to keep track of the discussion there. And in general, try to find as many possible ways to divide things into coverage areas that lead to people making the decision.”

This Associated Press analysis of liberal Democrats’ somewhat uneasy relationship with Hillary Clinton's politics shows how an outside-in approach to a notoriously hard-to-cover subject can provide enlightening context. Similarly, the press should take a cue from Senator Carl Levin, who pointedly asked Hillary Clinton her position on the Iran sanctions bill currently being debated in Congress. Getting her to state on the record she’s in favor of giving diplomacy time to work was a genuinely valuable public service, one that could have long-lasting implications during the 2016 primary and general election campaigns. Wouldn’t prospective Democratic primary voters likewise be interested in Clinton's specific positions on financial reform and the constitutionality of the NSA’s metadata collection program? Similarly, wouldn’t GOP primary voters, say, want a clear position on comprehensive immigration reform from Gov. Scott Walker?

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Unfortunately, these important questions, and many others, will likely go unanswered if the national press continues to favor a superficial, zero-sum approach to the 2016 campaign for the next two years. For a profession that likes to demand transparency from politicians, there’s an irony to press coverage that merely offers a veneer of clarity. It’s time to start lifting the veil of pointless polling that keeps too much of the invisible primary hidden from the American people.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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