The mainstream media’s obsessive coverage of Donald Trump is warping not just a Republican presidential race that is spiraling out of control, but a Democratic contest that is of equal consequence. And that’s not the worst of it. Major media outlets are now so obsessed with Trump’s candidacy—and so addicted to the clicks and ratings associated with the spectacle it has created—that they can barely be bothered to cover the other candidates, and thus are neglecting the deeper issues and concerns shaping this electoral season.
“Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, and Trump” is how veteran political observer Larry Sabato has summed up coverage of the campaign. By late February, the billionaire had, according to figures cited by The Economist, enjoyed 10 times as much attention on network evening newscasts as Florida Senator Marco Rubio. This overwhelming over-coverage of Trump’s candidacy has made “The Donald” the defining figure in the GOP competition. As Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! put it: “Trump doesn’t even have to go out on the road—he’s piped into everyone’s home.”
But Trumpmania has also redefined the Democratic race. The Republican front-runner has sucked up so much media oxygen that the Democratic contest is gasping for air. The GOP’s turnout is way up, while Democratic turnout is down. Only in a handful of caucus and primary states where the Bernie Sanders campaign has surged is turnout holding steady—or, in some cases, exceeding levels reached in the 2008 competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
On Super Tuesday, Democratic primary turnout was down roughly a third from 2008 levels. Barriers created by voter-ID laws and the evisceration of the Voting Rights Act were undoubtedly factors in several states. And it’s hard to compare the 2008 and 2016 Democratic races, since 2008 came after the catastrophic Bush years and was energized by the historic candidacy of Barack Obama. But the decline this year nonetheless has Democrats fretting. There are worries about reports from the Super Tuesday state of Massachusetts, where Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin noted that nearly 20,000 Democrats dropped their party registration in order to vote in the Republican primary.
These turnout patterns frustrate the Democrats. Their party has a serious race on its hands—as the March 8 upset win for Sanders in Michigan confirmed—between candidates who are engaged in a great debate about who better represents the progressive ideals of the grassroots activists who have forced open the current discussions about inequality, failed trade policies, mass incarceration, and climate change. Why isn’t a contest that features an insurgent candidate mounting a vigorous populist challenge to a former secretary of state with strong support from party leaders and key constituencies attracting more votes than a Republican contest where the candidates argue about the size of their… hands?
Anyone who understands how the modern media shape the narrative, as opposed to simply reporting on it, knows the answer. As of late February, the wrangling between Trump and his top two rivals (Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz) was given twice as much time on network TV as the Clinton-Sanders contest.