Why campaigns become horseraces and issues fade into the background

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Too often the media stop looking at the issues in a campaign and start focusing on the horserace. I’ve discovered why. It’s because the candidates themselves don’t offer anything new — at least from the reporters’ point-of-view.

By this time in the campaign the candidates have honed their stump speeches to a fine point, knowing which phrases will resonate in what cities and where to pause at which point. Reporters have heard it all before, and so to them what the candidates say is not news.

What is news is what the candidates do, what others say about them or do to them, and any particular changes to the overall environment that the media can report. Examples are verbal gaffes, poll numbers, contribution levels, attack ads, sometimes positive ads, and, of course, scandals. All these serve to distract the voters from the issues, which is not, I don’t think, what the media really want to do. It’s just that they get bored listening to and writing about the same old issues put forward in the same old stump speeches.

What the media forget is that the folks to whom they are communicating aren’t with the candidates or tuned to the election 24/7. As a matter of fact, common folks are barely tuned to the election 1/7. Because of this, they don’t always know the differences among the candidates, let alone their parties, let alone who controls Congress (according to an exhaustive University of Michigan study).
Meanwhile, the media blithely go on assuming that the object of their trumpeting is as familiar with the candidates’ positions as they are, which is why they report everything but.

Is there a solution?

Yes, there is. It’s called feedback. Not the feedback we see in letters-to-the-editor, which come from folks who are more engaged than the average voter; not the commentary to reporters’ blogs or newspaper forums, which largely comes from other bloggers and folks who have too much time on their hands and an axe to grind about their often extremist political positions.

What the media need to hear are the opinions of casual readers, cursory listeners and sometime viewers — regular folks whose lives are tied up with regular things like work and kids and friends and church and retirement and cooking and cleaning and watching sports and making ends meet. The media need to ask those folks what they want to know. They need to listen to them. And they need to tailor their information streams accordingly.

Until they do that, political campaigns will remain horseraces, candidates will be expected to be perfect, small details will be amplified beyond any relation to their true import, and potential voters will continue to be turned off by the confusion and pettiness our political process.

Listening to the common folk. Now that would be responsible journalism. And then if journalists do it, well maybe — just maybe — politicians might be more inclined to do the same.

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