A decade of journalistic handwringing over the social costs of policy-free, entertainment-oriented, low-stakes political reporting persuaded much of the the press — and the public — to focus on bigger questions about American democracy this presidential cycle.
And as a result, the media is largely ignoring signs that the 2024 Republican primary could be more competitive than Donald Trump’s campaign would like you to think. And the public is going along.
Trump’s strategy at the beginning of this year was to maintain a crowded field, propping up the campaign of Sen. Tim Scott, and to cruise through Iowa and New Hampshire toward a stacked and accelerated national primary on Super Tuesday on March 5.
By the hacky old rules of horse race politics, Trump’s plan isn’t working. Scott dropped out in November, Ron DeSantis is dead in the water, and Nikki Haley seems to be consolidating support in at least one key state even as Trump’s national lead hits new heights (and we know how quickly those numbers can swing once voting begins). Trump has made the tactical mistake of promising to dominate Iowa, giving momentum to a strong second or even third place. New Hampshire is getting close and Haley still has some obvious room to grow her vote share.
Journalists should always avoid overconfidence, and be open to surprise. It’s worth saying, as the Republican pollster Whit Ayres noted last week, that “Trump is not inevitable.”
The missing piece of this story is the American media, which has been persuaded by well-meaning critics to look away from the democratic drama of horse race politics — and to buy into Donald Trump’s campaign strategy of pretending there’s no primary.
I should know, both as a semi-reformed hack political reporter, an editor, and as one of those critics. I wrote a sententious piece in 2018 headlined, “I Helped Create Insider Political Journalism. Now It’s Time For It To Go Away.” The piece reflected the consensus of the moment among people from me to NBC’s Chuck Todd, and also reflected the desires of an audience that was bored and repelled “by tactical, amoral, insidery, and mostly male-dominated political reporting.”
We had a point, of course. But nothing is ever quite that simple. The drama or personality and competition has always been part of the pageant of democracy. And we’re now watching what happens when the media looks past the primary process to the likely high-stakes confrontation between Trump and Biden, the consequences for American democracy, the sweep of history — and allows Trump’s mundane signs of political weakness (skipping debates, barely campaigning, and pretending rivals don’t exists) to be seen as strengths.
This of course doesn’t mean ignoring the stakes, or dialing back coverage of the big policy questions, up to and including respect for the electoral process and likely centering on abortion.
But these things are bound together. Haley is the only national Republican figure who has found a way to talk about abortion that doesn’t immediately cost her a popular majority. That’s part of why she’s beating Joe Biden by 17 points in a recent Wall Street Journal poll. And Haley’s general election strength is a great pitch to Republican covers — and could have been the biggest story in every publication in the country.
And that kind of hacky, poll-driven coverage moves donors, voters, and endorsers. It’s part of the fabric of a dynamic democracy. We may not need fewer articles about the dangers to democracy, but we also need more stories like Paul Steinhauser’s recent Fox News article asking, “Are Trump’s expectations too high in Iowa’s Jan. 15 caucuses?”
This doesn’t mean ignoring the political realities: One reason Haley’s pitch to voters that she’s electable has made little impact is a wave of polls showing Trump beating Biden in key states.
But I’m not sure journalists’ posture above such horse race nonsense has improved American democracy. And political journalists, of all people, should resist feeling comfortable in the unearned complacency about Trump’s inevitability, and too gloomy about the fate of democracy to cover its messy process.
In fact, most experienced political journalists will tell you with regret about having made this kind of mistake in the past. Mine came in 2009, when billionaire New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg persuaded the press to ignore his challenger, a capable Brooklyn pol named Bill Thompson. We complied, and were shocked when Bloomberg barely scraped by. We realized Thompson would likely have won if we’d covered the race with balance.
I don’t want to make that mistake again. And sometimes democracy requires writing about politics.
So: Two cheers for hacky political reporting! Cover the primary!
Room for Disagreement
- Trump’s hold over the party in 2023 has absolutely zero to do with what the D.C. rags write, and everything to do with coverage choices in MAGA media. Not even Fox’s DeSantis propaganda made a dent.
- If there had been more accurate not wishcasting horse race coverage this cycle, it would’ve spent most of the year talking about Trump’s momentum!
- People have tried to do Haleymentum horse race coverage to little effect.
- Dave Weigel does a wonderful job blending styles of coverage for your publication, people who read him would know what is happening and him gassing it up 50% more or less on stakes vs odds would’ve impacted this race zero so no sense in changing course!
- “We contributed to the erosion of the allure and attraction of democracy,” Columbia Journalism School’s Sheila Coronel reflected of the Filipino press in George Packer’s Atlantic consideration of a second Trump term.
- There’s a divide between two camps of journalists, Margaret Sullivan writes on her Substack: Traditionalists want to stay in their lanes; critics want to shift to coverage of the stakes.
- Donald Trump is his own, dominant right-wing media, the Economist concludes: “No institution that enjoys the trust of Republican voters can successfully stand up to him.”