The presidential nominating contest keeps creeping earlier and earlier into the election year. The Iowa caucuses are 16 days earlier than in 2004. The New Hampshire primary is 19 days earlier than in 2004. Before the first results, the media were already pushing the contenders around, predicting that most presidential campaigns are toast if they don't win in one of these states and in so doing are only advancing that perception.
All the talk of reforming the primary system -- to make it more logical, more rational, more regional, more representative, less tilted to traditional first states like Iowa and New Hampshire -- all of these do less for a rational nomination process than reforming the reporters and pundits who want to declare the whole race over from the first shot of the starting gun.
In 2004, John Kerry was estimated to have sealed the winning number of convention delegates by March 11. But the conventional media wisdom was talking him up as the Democratic champion and nominee after the primaries on Feb. 3. By Feb. 6, the Reuters wire service put out a story headlined "Kerry Presidency Seen (As) a Boon for U.S. Markets." Soon, CBS and other media outlets started investigating and attacking the National Guard record of President Bush, as if they were following the orders of Kerry advisers. The general election seemed already under way.
Voters should almost root for indecisive results in early states so as to avoid the general election campaign starting right after Martin Luther King Day. As it is, it will be hard to fail to see clear winners after the 22 states that vote on Feb. 5.
Reporters might protest that primary voters don't want a messy nominating battle or a brokered convention, so that once a candidate strings together a few primary wins, the later states just pile on to assure a smooth ride. That's a logical assumption. But the media's jackrabbit speed in declaring the race over helps accelerate the whole process and take the old-fashioned patriotic appeal out of primary elections where voters matter. If the networks truly want to foster political debate and electoral turnout, why can't they stop their incessant crystal-ball chatter and let the game unfold a little more naturally?
In Iowa in 2004, the pre-caucus polls showed an extremely fluid and close four-way Democrat race -- which turned out to be wrong. But the Tim Russerts of the world announced with great fanfare that this was too close to call. The supposed fantasy of a four-way tie gave way to a very different reality: John Kerry took 38 percent, followed by John Edwards with 32, Screaming Howard Dean with 18, and Dick Gephardt with 11.
The media didn't get up in the morning and pronounce themselves completely unreliable. They didn't suggest their crystal balls or mood rings were going in the garbage can. They simply moved on and declared it a "huge win" for Kerry and a "miserable" night for Dean.
The "game" of the campaigns is all about defying the media's own expectations instead of simply impressing voters. Every calculation is fixated on capturing the media's imagination and securing the media's official recognitions of momentum. They reward candidates who "beat expectations" and shove aside those who underwhelm them. The whole spectacle displays how the media greedily grasp for more power than the voters in picking our presidents.
The titans of the major media don't see themselves as in need of reform. They think the voters have to be reformed, not the media. In Newsweek magazine, Evan Thomas mourned the "Closing of the American Mind," and regurgitated the faddish media analysis that we live in a world of "hyperpartisanship," and most voters are either angry, partisan political junkies or disaffected voters who tune out the news media and obsess instead over Xbox, the Home Shopping Network or "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Apparently, Thomas believes that if you're going to insult the disaffected voter, you might as well go for it.
The complaint of "hyperpartisanship," of a political system with no charity in it, is an odd complaint from a news magazine that disses Vice President Dick Cheney a few pages earlier in that same issue as a "secretive, trigger-happy, fossil-fuel lover."
In the coming primary elections, voters ought to vote on their own instincts and not listen to the liberal media's instant judgments of which candidate is golden and which candidate is toast. If the media elite really thinks that the casual voter is an Xbox-obsessed simpleton or an air-headed TV home-shopper, why should he or she heed the media's unceasing advice?