- - Thursday, February 19, 2015

With eleven months to go before the first 2016 Republican primary contests, the pundits are already focusing upon disqualifying candidates for mistakes they make on the trail – much as they did in the 2012 primary – rather than delving into the substance of candidates’ records and policy proposals.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a tumultuous past few weeks, if you read the headlines, with his statement about parental choice for childhood vaccinations and a report describing his lavish travel preferences. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., similarly caught flack for his view on vaccinations.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal – whom the media once pronounced a failure based upon the optics, not the content, of his 2009 State of the Union response – was criticized by columnists and even some in his own party for a string of new policy positions. The National Journal recently noted that he still “struggles” to overcome the old State of the Union image.

Jindal isn’t the only potential 2016 candidate who had a shaky national debut. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., gulped from a plastic water bottle during his own State of the Union response. Talented and thirsty was apparently a poor combination, if you watched the evening news. Now some stories are focusing on whether it would be ungrateful for him to challenge former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who supported Mr. Rubio in his early days.

By contrast, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is enjoying a 2016 boom – in part because his potential rivals are seen as damaged, perhaps with the exception of Mr. Bush.  Mr. Walker has “a chance to learn from Christie’s missteps” concerning immunizations, John McCormack wrote in Bloomberg Politics.

Media perception can help derail a comeback. Mitt Romney was said to have a lackluster rollout of a possible third run for president in January, despite the fact that he was leading in several polls of likely Republican voters.  Mr. Romney announced soon after that he would not run.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is wounded out of the gate in 2016 due to the talking heads’ focus on his poor debates – highlighted by his “oops” moment in the 2012 primary. The fact that he was the longest serving governor in Texas history, during which time jobs numbers soared there, is obscured. And former Alaska Governor and GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who recently said she may consider running in 2016, doesn’t stand a chance because her speeches are parsed to ridicule her rather than to report her policy ideas.

Sensationalism in presidential politics is nothing new. Remember former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s “scream” in the 2004 Democratic primary? Or, for those of us who are older, Ed Muskie’s tears in New Hampshire (which he claimed were snow) in the 1972 Democratic primary?

This is not to say that scandals and mistakes don’t matter. Part of the media’s role is to kick the tires of candidates who seek to become president. And readers who watch or click on these news stories should share the blame.

But if the goal is to give the American people substantive knowledge with which to select their next president – rather than focusing upon who’s up, or more aptly, who’s down – then I’d say the 2016 race is off to an unfortunate start.

Adam Silbert, an attorney, served as a field organizer for the 2012 Obama campaign.

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