8/27/2008

On Phony Narratives and Media Reponsibility

One of the enduring stories of the Democratic National Convention this week is what Hillary Clinton's supporters will do. Much has been made about the fact that a significant number of them have yet to rally behind Barack Obama. Popularly identified reasons for this have to do with Obama's perceived inability to connect with White working class voters, possible racism, and lingering resentment from Clinton supporters that the nomination was somehow stolen from her.

However, the media are doing Barack Obama, Democratic voters, the broader electorate, and even John McCain a great disservice by continuing to advance these storylines. A lot of the reasons cited for the disenchantment among Clinton loyalists are farcical, self-serving, and manipulative. And they betray the media's credibility when it comes to accurately examining why this is happening.

First of all, attrition is a natural phenomenon. It can be found when conducting a longitudinal experiment or when conducting follow-up surveys. You may start off with 50 subjects in an experiment only to finish with 40 a few months later. Is a researcher going to think the experiment has a fundamental flaw because he could not achieve a 0% attrition rate?

The same thing happens in politics. When a candidate drops out of a race, sometimes voters simply lose interest in the rest of the campaign because "their candidate" is all that mattered. It's not a knock against the other candidates in the race; they simply don't have an interest anymore. Why not respect that? Barack Obama has not necessarily done anything to turn these voters off. They simply might not be interested in Obama because he's not who they really wanted to have win the nomination. That's not an Obama weakness at all.

When the Republican primaries were in full force and candidates began dropping out of the race, how many stories were there about Fred Thompson's voters not lining up behind John McCain and Mitt Romney's voters not lining up behind Mike Huckabee? It's the exact same phenomenon. Maybe the Fredheads only wanted to vote for Fred Thompson. And once Fred Thompson was no longer in the race, his supporters would stay home. Even after the Republican race was decided, John McCain was still losing about 20% of the vote to Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul in the remaining primaries. Where were the stories of discontent back then?

Put another way, if you want to eat Chinese food, but the Chinese restaurant closed down and your only other in-town dining option is Italian food, is it not natural for some people to simply want to stay home and cook their own food? How is that the Italian restaurant's fault?

Secondly, by hyping up this segment of the electorate, the media are inflating that segment's importance. Perhaps 30% of Clinton's supporters are considering staying home or voting for John McCain. But to report on their disillusion day in and day out runs the risk of turning them into kingmakers when they really shouldn't be. Why are Clinton diehards more important than strongly devout Christians who are not voting Republican this year? Using the media's logic, John McCain should be worried about losing a quarter of the evangelical vote to Barack Obama, Barack Obama should be worried about losing 5% of the Black vote to John McCain, John McCain should be worried about losing 40% of the White male vote to Barack Obama, and Barack Obama should be worried about losing a third of the Latino vote to John McCain. Do the media honestly believe that one politician's supporters or any particular constituency is really 100% monolithic? Does the fact that Barack Obama is not winning over 100% of Clinton's supporters mean he must have "a problem" with the segment of the electorate she did well with?

The media's fomenting dissent by reporting on this lack of unity has caused John McCain to try and capitalize on it by reminding Clinton's supporters that Obama is not on their side. It seems to be smart politics on its face, as driving down enthusiasm among your opponent's supporters makes good electoral sense. However, the media may be doing John McCain a service by inflating the severity of the rift between Clinton and Obama because this could cause McCain to overplay his hand and come across as an ambulance chaser trying to console the inconsolable. And that undercuts his own image of being a maverick who doesn't pander.

And finally, the media, pundits, and surrogates on both sides are ignoring something very important. What if John McCain is simply more palatable to some Clinton supporters than Obama is? In Clinton's speech last night, she did not mention abortion rights and the Supreme Court. Her populist rhetoric and ability to connect with conservative Democrats made her unique among recent Democrats. Obama has not campaigned extensively on the grits and molasses circuit and is more outspokenly liberal on these social issues. So there may be a comfort gap between these voters and Obama. It's not because Obama is a flawed candidate. It may very well be because John McCain is more effective at communicating with them than he is. Likewise, Obama is eating into McCain's base of moderate suburban women. Where are the stories about McCain's struggles to staunch the political bleeding among the once-fabled security moms?

Media professionals should be careful not to buy into overly simplistic thinking and assign causality where such a relationship may not or does not exist. While this may be good for John McCain because it undercuts Barack Obama at his own convention, it is the media's responsibility to display a bit more accuracy and independence in their reporting and begin challenging popular assertions that come from people whose interests may directly conflict with traditional media imperatives.

3 comment(s):

Brett said...

You're right, Anthony. And that's not to mention that many of the Democratic Primaries and Caucuses were "open", meaning that quite a few Republicans may have thrown their votes in there.

Either way, it's probably just griping. Conservative, religious white democrats have been defecting to the Republican Party since at least the time of Reagan, so if a large fraction of them defected, it wouldn't be a surprise.

Khaki Elephant said...

by hyping up this segment of the electorate, the media are inflating that segment's importance.

I agree. I believe the overwhelming majority of Hillary activists will pull the lever for Obama in November. The only question remaining is how many women who were considering that, maybe, well, perhaps they might be kinda leaning toward Hillary but now feel that she was treated poorly and won't consider Obama as an option . . . but that doesn't mean they'll vote for McCain or vote at all.

Despite the thunder still rumbling from the Clinton machine, this election no longer revolves around the former first family from Arkansas . . . New York.

S.W. Anderson said...

But to report on their disillusion day in and day out runs the risk of turning them into kingmakers when they really shouldn't be.

AP, you're looking to the major media to be logical, accurate and responsible. I fear we're long past the day when those things were of utmost importance in major-media newsrooms. (I think the lesser media, including smaller-city newspapers and broadcasters, mostly behave more responsibly).

Nowadays, it's all about infotainment, with on-air personalities busily framing this way and that, trying to pump up drama and conflict based on personalities, images and trendiness. And that's on top of cases of our infotainers responding to what they damn well know the people in the executive suite want, like Sumner Redstone's reported statement in (I think) 2000, "I've got to have a Republican president."

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.