The Platonic Ideal of Horse Race Journalism

As the 2016 presidential election draws closer, America’s political press corps is warming up for what they do best: drone on about nothing of consequence.

Advocates of press freedom are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” They are less fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” Jefferson was no fool. He understood both the vital importance of a free press to a democratic society, and the propensity of journalists to squander that freedom on absolute bullshit.

Politics is important. The politicians that we elect pass laws that meaningfully affect the lives of millions or billions of people. Political journalism is an important job. These journalists are responsible for telling the public what they need to know about the people they vote for. They are responsible for explaining and analyzing the critical issues that these politicians will be making choices about—many of which are quite literally life-and-death decisions. Will we go to war? Will we figure out how to adapt to climate change? Will we do something to stop the rampant economic inequality that is dividing our society? Getting to the heart of these questions is ultimately what political journalists should do.

That is not, of course, what most political journalists do. Most political journalists cover political campaigns in the same way that sports reporters cover sports. Team A has a new strategy! Team B made a mistake! Team C has a new manager! This style of “horse race journalism” has the effect of completely obscuring the issues underlying these political campaigns. So why do reporters do this? Because it is easy. It is easier to cover campaigns like this, and it requires less thought, and it leaves journalists less prone to being attacked by one side or another, and it is, in general, purely speculative rubbish which cannot be truly refuted. So it is what we get.

The cover of New York magazine is a valuable piece of media real estate. It reaches a lot of people. It is read by a lot of elites. This week, the magazine dedicates its cover story to the very embodiment of horse race journalism: Jason Zengerle’s meandering piece entitled, “Is Hillary Clinton Any Good At Running For President?

Would Hillary Clinton be a good president?
What would Hillary Clinton do as president?
What issues have motivated Hillary Clinton to run for president?

None of these questions are explored. Issues are boring! Substance is for suckers! What is explored instead is the vacuous meta-question at the heart of all horse race journalism, embodied in this paragraph:

Pat Buchanan, the venerable Republican operative who advised Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, likes to assess politicians as “political athletes.” Putting aside ideologies, policy preferences, even personalities, how do they perform on the political playing field?

Putting aside everything that could actually mean something to the average citizen, let’s talk politics! Zengerle’s piece fulfills all of the most important criteria for pure horse race coverage untainted by any trace of broader importance.

  1. Campaigns are like TV shows!

As much as a presidential race is a referendum on the candidates, it’s also a referendum on the dominant analytic style of the moment. The 2008 election was the campaign as soap opera, with an extraordinary cast of characters and the narrative suspense of the best television shows, scripted or reality. Four years later, it was Nate Silver’s world (all that mattered were the fundamentals), and the rest of us — Obama and Romney included — were just living in it, trying to parse which pollster’s numbers were skewed and whose models were best. At the beginning of this presidential election, the analytical innovations coming from the smartest academics offer a framework for following the race that is at once liberating and terrifying: Nothing really matters. Unless it does.

(“Nothing really matters. Unless it does” is, I’m afraid, emblematic of the level of substantial analysis throughout Zengerle’s story.)

2. Amateur psychoanalysis is what really matters!

Perhaps her loss in 2008 was traumatic enough to fundamentally rewire Hillary Clinton the candidate — though how, then, to explain the Guernicapress conference? More likely, the Clinton running this campaign will resemble all the previous ones, and her difficulty projecting something that reads as sincerity will be akin to Obama’s aloofness: a negative character trait that sometimes slips into remission but will dog her until retirement. It’s also possible that her weakness here is overblown. To many observers at the time, the 2008 primary race looked like a perfect controlled experiment: a long slog between two candidates, and as soon as one loosened up, she started winning again. But extensive analyses now suggest that Clinton’s personality shift wasn’t what drove her temporary comeback.

3. It’s all about the most superficial outward appearances!

Campaigns are punctuated by moments of high stagecraft — debates, convention speeches — that require oratorical talents that Clinton does not possess in abundance.

4. Maybe one thing. Then again, maybe another!

Clinton might give a terrific acceptance speech at the Democratic convention; it could also be lackluster. Chances are it won’t be remembered by the fall.

5. Policy positions don’t matter, but “gaffes” do!

Then there’s Clinton’s ability to give voters reasons to oppose her. For such a disciplined, on-message candidate, she’s committed an inordinate number of gaffes over the years.

Sports are fun. Races are entertaining. But in the grand scheme of things, they do not really matter. The problem with horse race journalism is that it forgets that politics does matter.

The danger to the Clinton campaign, at this early stage, is not that she might slip in a debate or never quite muster an adequate explanation for deleting emails as secretary of State. It’s that she might not have the ability to break through the cynicism and noise of our political circus and deliver a striking, clear message. In other words, she might never figure out how to get journalists to stop writing articles like this one.

In fact, articles like this one are not a danger to the Clinton campaign. They’re a danger to readers.

[Photo: AP]