Apolitical revolution is taking place in America. The process of selecting party presidential candidates has been transformed in the last two or three election cycles. Now we have the early debates designed to drive poll numbers and tell us who’s “ahead” and who’s “behind,” who’s “gaining” and who’s “dropping.” Yet not a single vote has been taken, not a single voter has pulled a lever in a voting booth or gone to a single caucus.
And yet candidates are being winnowed out. Take, for example, Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Is he out because he couldn’t get any voters to vote for him? No, few voters have even bothered to focus on the race thus far with any intensity, much less actually vote. It’s because his debate performances proved lackluster, which sent his poll numbers down, which led to a sharp decline in his ability to raise money. He lost in a contest that was extra-electoral.
So who’s running the show? First, the cable networks, which host and hawk the debates. Second, the campaign media, particularly the selfsame cable shows, that then go wild in their coverage and analysis of who won and lost. Third, the pollsters, who rush out to assess opinion in the wake of the debates, thus giving the impression that the race has actually begun when in fact their polls reflect nothing more than a “snapshot” look at political sentiment months before it actually congeals into something meaningful. Fourth, the money guys, who absorb all the drama perpetrated by the cable provocateurs, the political reporters and the pollsters, and then direct or withhold their dollars based on that superficial drama.
Is this not a push toward oligarchy? Here we have crucial matters of state, nothing less than the selection of our elected leaders, more and more residing in the hands of a well-positioned few who manage to influence the outcome, perhaps even effect an outcome, before the voters get into the game.
History tells us that, in the old days, these early polls often got superseded by actual political sentiment that emerged when the race finally began. Consider the view of the political pundits on Sen. John McCain’s chances of getting the GOP presidential nomination in the fall of 2007. The polls had him down, and hence the prevailing perception of punditry was that he was down for the count. I attended a weekend retreat of political pundits and campaign consultants during that season, and when we went around the table to venture our predictions on the nomination, only one person predicted Mr. McCain, and he worked for the guy. Those pundits and professionals were wrong because they based their predictions on early polls.
Four years earlier, in the fall of 2003, the polls and pundits told us the Democratic nominee would be former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. Not only did he lead in most polls, but he outpaced his party rivals in fundraising. And yet when Iowans marched to their caucuses the next January, he came in third. His campaign sputtered from there. Clearly, the emergence of actual voter sentiment doesn’t always follow those early polls.
And in the old days those poll numbers seldom set off a winnowing process. True, sometimes it would become clear to a candidate that his or her campaign was fundamentally a pretense. But cable didn’t play the role then that it does now; the polls, while taken seriously, didn’t drive the process as they do now; and the money guys were generally inclined to stay with their candidates until they could see what the voters would do. Hence, the voters still mattered.
They matter still today. But less than at any time in our history. Even when the nominees were selected by the so-called party bosses in smoke-filled rooms, and primaries were confined to just a few states, the role of the voters could be crucial. The bosses, in their wisdom, refrained from picking presidential candidates until they saw who could garner support in the primaries.
When John Kennedy ran against Hubert Humphrey for the 1960 Democratic nomination, he beat the Minnesotan in the Wisconsin primary. But his victory margin wasn’t sufficient to give the bosses, who dominated caucus and convention states, enough confidence they to award Kennedy the nomination. So the Massachusetts senator had do battle in West Virginia, a state that few expected to be hospitable to a Catholic. He won handily and that sealed the deal for him.
Thus, voter sentiment played a significant role even back then. And bear in mind that those party bosses in those back rooms put a lot more care into assessing the collective sentiment of the voters than Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow do. For them, their own careers could crumble if they picked the wrong person. No such incentive animates those cable show hosts or their allies in the polling game.
Yes, Scott Walker’s campaign performance was lackluster, and perhaps that would have caught up with him when the voters finally stepped into voting booths. But a lot can happen between the autumn before the campaign year and the actual start of the campaign. Maybe Mr. Walker could have found his footing in time to impress voters and generate a surge. Perhaps not. But we’ll never know because he couldn’t get that far. The pre-voter winnowing defeated both him and the voters.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.