Mainstream media types and their consumers should all repeat to themselves at least once a day: Ordinary voters are far less excitable than what coverage often suggests.
If cable-news coverage matched reality, you would expect voters to think the most important issue out there is the Russia investigation, and that their questions would reflect it. That is not the case, really in any campaign. Voters ask about issues, not scandals.
If cable-news coverage matched reality, former representative Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be leading the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The latest Morning Consult poll tell us that, among all primary voters, former vice president Joe Biden (35 percent) maintains a big lead; Sanders is second at 25 percent; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), O’Rourke and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) are bunched behind Sanders at 8 percent, 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively. If you believed the coverage of her management techniques, you might think Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was kaput. Yet she’s tied with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who gets far more coverage, at 2 percent, just behind Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) at 4 percent.
None of this is predictive of what will happen next February when votes start to be counted, but it certainly does not equate to the amount or tone of a lot of the coverage.
The gap between coverage and reality is even more pronounced in early states where the current results show: Biden (38 percent), Sanders (27 percent), Harris (8 percent), O’Rourke and Warren (7 percent).
If coverage matched not only these numbers but crowd size, the narrative of the race would go like this: Biden, who has yet to officially enter the race, remains the clear favorite despite all the talk about the energy on the left wing of the party. Sanders, with 100 percent name recognition and a previous presidential campaign under his belt, hasn’t moved even after entering the race and raising a ton of money.
Warren, far from out of it, is matching Harris and O’Rourke stride for stride. While the media generally ignores much of what she actually says, her impressive list of policies all aimed at “unrigging” the system — e.g., ethics reform, a child-care plan, a wealth tax, an anti-monopoly bill aimed at Big Tech and a housing plan — puts her opponents to shame. Rather than obsess on her “likability” (voters like her so far just about as much as they like Harris and O’Rourke), they might cover what she says and start pressing other candidates for more specifics.
Of all the candidates, Harris has moved the most dramatically and held her place as a top-tier candidate. Her crowds number in the thousands. On a personal level, she is the warmest and most emotionally present when interacting with voters. Of all the candidates, she looks like she is having the most fun. She has rolled out two meaty plans (on taxes and raising teacher pay) which put her behind Warren in the wonkiness race — but ahead of most everyone else.
Sanders has his solid group of rabid defenders but shows no real sign of having expanded his reach since 2016. If a candidate can capture the 40 percent or so of Democrats who say they are moderates, or the majority (54 percent) who want the party to be more centrist plus a smattering of progressives, it would put Sanders at a severe disadvantage.
O’Rourke got a ton of media coverage and raised a boatload of money. In regards to polling, he’s about where he was before he entered the race. He’s begun to provide more answers to policy questions but his entrance, so far, has not transformed the race to the degree that coverage suggests.
You see, the reality of the race is more boring, less hyperactive and more issue-focused than what you get from watching cable news. Harris is under-covered given her success to date. Warren has been pigeonholed as a loser by the media, but still draws sizable crowds and is far and away the most substantive.
Biden supposedly will enter the race early next month, but the shape of the race may not change much until voters start assessing the candidates for themselves in debates. Seeing the candidates for themselves rather than through an artificial media story line has a way of changing voters’ minds.