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The Iowa caucus is a reminder that 'horserace' journalism is still the norm | Jon Allsop | Opinion

As campaigning in Iowa enters the home stretch, the Democratic candidates for president are finally at the starting gate, and mixed horserace metaphors are everywhere. Over the weekend, it felt as if today’s caucuses in the state – which typically are an all-consuming story on their eve – were themselves in a race for media attention, nosing out in front of Trump’s impeachment, the coronavirus, the Super Bowl, and other big stories. We heard about candidates’ “jockeying”“for an edge” and “over notions about electability” – and that “the horse race has overtaken policy as a focus right now. And that was just in the New York Times.

On Saturday, the handicappers in the political press waited for an update on the running: the final Des Moines Register poll of the cycle. (The poll, conducted by local pollster Ann Selzer, has traditionally been a useful guide to the result; ahead of its planned release, David Weigel, of the Washington Post, called it “an event of nearly religious importance”.) Then, a shock stumble: the poll was pulled at the last minute, after a respondent informed Pete Buttigieg’s campaign that Buttigieg had not been offered to them as an option. The Register wrote in a note that “while this appears to be isolated to one surveyor, that could not be confirmed with certainty”; CNN, which was also involved with the poll, said it was scrapped “out of an abundance of caution”. Lis Smith, who speaks for Buttigieg’s campaign, praised both outlets for their integrity, as did prominent journalists like Art Cullen, editor of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times. Still, the cancellation left a hole in CNN’s schedule; it had planned to give the poll an hour of airtime. (As the data guru Nate Silver noted, planning to obsess over a single poll for so long is silly, for reasons that go far beyond unexpected technical problems.) CNN wasn’t the only outlet to be inconvenienced. Sunday shows on other networks appeared to have been blindsided, too.

Looking through the holes left by the poll, our obsession with the horserace was clear to see. The preponderance of such framing is a favorite punching bag for many media critics, who see it, variously, as trivial, unfair and unreliable. Its defenders counter that knowing who’s up and who’s down is what elections are all about, and that this year, in particular, Democratic voters and candidates alike have been heavily preoccupied with the need to beat Donald Trump. (As the Times wrote on Saturday: “A 2020 primary season that was initially seen as a contest of ideas, with liberal activists largely setting the agenda” has “given way” to the electability question.) This weekend, of all weekends, wasn’t all the horserace talk justified?

As ever, the problem, over the weekend, was one of proportionality. When it comes to campaign coverage, the press is not a passive actor – candidates and voters obsessing about electability isn’t an open invitation for us to do the same, not least because we have a habit of warping their ideas of who can win and who can’t. And the primary is not over: there’s still an awfully long way to go until a winner is crowned. It’s hardly like coverage of the race, to this point, has struck an appropriate balance between substance and handicapping. Some coverage of policy has been good, but more often, it’s been broad-strokes stuff, and preoccupied with positioning.

Even before Iowa, there’s been ample indication that the framing errors that shaped coverage in 2016 are being repeated, despite insistence, in many media circles, that we should avoid them. On Friday, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, went on The Daily, the paper’s flagship podcast, to address mistakes he’s been accused of making in (and since) 2016, including “bothsidesism, the Times’s handling of stolen information, and, prominently, horserace errors; Michael Barbaro, the host, asked Baquet to evaluate specific examples of coverage from the last cycle. But the discussion dealt more with the Times’s misreading of the field – Clinton was inevitable; Trump was impossible – than with the deeper problems of the horserace model. (Last year, Todd Gitlin reflected, for CJR, on the inadequacy of our collective self-criticism. Ahead of 2020, he wrote, “learning trivial lessons will not do”.)

This weekend alone, other specters of 2016 loomed large in coverage, too. In his Super Bowl “interview” (sic) with Sean Hannity, Trump sprayed insults about his Democratic rivals (“sleepy” Joe Biden; “short” Michael Bloomberg) that mainstream outlets eagerly amplified. (As I’ve written before, Trump’s insults are powerful rhetorical darts but the press tends to handle them carelessly.) Trump and Bloomberg’s “dueling Super Bowl ads” drove some coverage, too, proving again that paid publicity reliably begets free publicity. We even literally had a fresh round of Hillary v Bernie coverage, fueled by recent sniping from Clinton, and by Rashida Tlaib, a Sanders surrogate, booing Clinton at a rally. Some of the Sunday shows took all this as fresh evidence that the Democrats are tearing themselves apart, which felt a bit contrived given that Clinton isn’t running, and that those who are have mostly behaved cordially until now (with some notable exceptions). Genuinely divergent ideas aren’t dangerous; they’re what elections should be about. Try telling Sunday show pundits that. (Yesterday, on ABC’s This Week, one of them called Sanders unelectable because he’s “a grumpy, angry person”. The host, George Stephanopoulos, instantly pivoted to socialism’s bad rep.)

Last month, CJR and the Guardian spoke with journalists and media-watchers about these errors and others, and how we might avoid them. Those we canvassed disagreed as to the ills of horserace coverage, specifically: Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed (who is headed to the Times) said it was “dead”; Chris Hayes, of MSNBC, called it “fine”. Smith’s and Hayes’s respective audiences have different tastes, but Hayes added an important, universal caveat: the horserace, he said, is “a thing to cover, it’s just that that is not all you cover.” In Iowa and beyond, we should remember that. And we should ensure the other stuff we cover adds value, too.

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