The bane of American political reporting is election horse race coverage.
Who’s up, who’s down and what’s the strategy becomes more important than policy and proposals and what their actual effect will have on people’s lives. It’s mindless and pursued because storylines with tensions and resolutions can be easily drawn and created.
A [presidential] primary campaign, and especially its early “invisible” period, can be understood as a time when party leaders—in other words, “insiders”—talk to, and argue with, each other about who their standard-bearer should be. Many factors go into that choice, from perceptions about electability to petty personal considerations. But the argument is, in large part, a contest over who wields power within the party, and what sort of values and goals the party wants to prioritize.
For the 2012 presidential cycle, this argument has been underway for months within the Republican Party. And the way it plays out will shape the choices available to GOP voters. In even the earliest primary and caucus states, voters choose from the options presented by party insiders (or, in some years, ratify the insiders’ choice). If reporters wait for the voters to weigh in to take stock of who’s ahead, they’ll have missed much of the story.
If you’re an ordinary voter, that might seem unfair. But one of the features of American democracy is that ordinary voters who care deeply about their party’s choice can, through the commitment of time and energy, influence the insider conversation. And good horse race coverage can help them understand how to do that effectively, by making the conversation transparent…
…So absolutely, let’s have less journalism that’s nothing more than prognostication or armchair strategizing. But let’s have more reporting that explores the process by which our political leaders are selected, and makes it intelligible to ordinary people. That’s coverage of the “horse race”—and it’s valuable, democracy-sustaining work.