Yet so far, the change the networks have focused on has not been the one looming over the Speaker's chair. Instead, it has been the change in the Republican Party. Is the Grand Old Party undergoing an extreme branding makeover? Or is the Tea Party taking over? The agenda for the final few weeks of the campaign season is set. Once political journalists answer those questions, we will understand what is at stake in the next Congress.
Here are the numbers. So far in 2010, the midterms have attracted 247 minutes (ABC 85, CBS 88, NBC 74) of coverage. Already, this year is more newsworthy than the uninteresting elections of 1998 (184 mins) and almost equal with the lackluster years of 2002 (256 mins) and 1990 (258 mins). As Election Day approaches, coverage should intensify. If 2010 is to set historic highs, it will have to surpass the 375 minutes in 2006 (152 mins on the contest for control of the House); and the yet larger 453 minutes in 1994 (167 mins on the House).
Finally, in the last two weeks, the midterms have achieved headline status for the first time this year. House Republicans were Story of the Day on Thursday when they presented their Pledge To America platform. Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell qualified as Story of the Day twice after winning the Republican primary for the Senate seat in Delaware.
So far, only 41 minutes out of this year's 247 have been devoted to the contest to control the House. The national news media are routinely confounded when it comes to turning this collection of local races into a compelling story. First, the contest is not truly national since the vast majority of districts are not closely contested; control of the House hinges on a few dozen swing districts, so only a small slice of the population has a say in the result at the ballot box. Second, there are very few celebrity politicians with national name recognition whose careers are on the line in Congressional races; of the few representatives who happen to be household names, almost all, by definition, are longstanding incumbents with massive majorities. Thus Charles Rangel makes news this campaign season not because his reelection is in peril but because his ethical reputation is.
As a recourse, there is one tactic--a misleading one--that the national newscasts resort to. White House correspondents, especially, try to pretend that the midterm election is really a Presidential one, a referendum on Barack Obama's first term in office. CBS' Chip Reid is especially curious about Obama's role in the midterm campaign:
"Scores of moderate and conservative Democrats across the nation are doing everything they can to avoid him"-- August 5th.
"In all 130,000 jobs have been lost in Ohio since the President was sworn in…All that economic pain has angry voters here in Ohio looking for someone to blame and the Democrats are in charge. Election Day for them could be a disaster"-- August 18th.
"In many parts of the nation the last thing Democratic candidates want is to share a stage with President Obama"-- September 20th.
Forget about the separation of powers. The failure or success of Democratic legislators in preserving their majorities is turned into a measure of the length of the President's coattails, even though he is not actually running at the top of the ticket. Thus the Congressional contest can be framed as one of personality not party, of popularity not policy.
ABC anchor Sawyer was so enthusiastic about pursuing this angle that she gushed over her White House correspondent's discovery of discord between President and House Democratic caucus over their prospects. "What a series of quotes you had there, Jake Tapper reporting tonight!" she applauded. No matter that none of his quotes were on the record. "We are doing a lot of heavy lifting for him…We did all the work. You are taking all the credit," was how Tapper repeated the words of an unidentified solon, citing without soundbites.
More straightforward is the network newscasts' decision to focus on Senate races. More than half the coverage of Campaign 2010 so far (not even including January's special election in Massachusetts) has been devoted to specific Senate races (121 mins) or to the overall contest for Senate control (36 mins). As the campaign started--before the underlying faultlines of this year's contest became clear--coverage here too was personality driven. Would lions of the Senate, political celebrities of longstanding keep their jobs? Both Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and John McCain in Arizona faced primary challenges. Anchors Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer went on the road in search of celebrity contests with vivid candidates. ABC's Sawyer settled on Carly Fiorina in California, making the dubious claim that no Senate race was "more fascinating"; CBS' Couric chose Linda McMahon in Connecticut, which allowed the anchor to recycle clips of "the roughest and raunchiest moments from the WWE," the pro-wrestling circus McMahon owns with her husband Vince.
At the beginning of the primary season, reporters could see only superficial explanations for the way contests were trending. Was age a problem--looking at McCain and Specter? "The combination of long-term incumbency and age," opined ABC's George Stephanopoulos. Was this a year for female candidates to make a breakthrough? Nominees included not just McMahon and Fiorina but Sharron Angle in Nevada and female would-be governors in California and South Carolina. "Fed-up voters in both parties are turning to more women to do the job," judged NBC's Kelly O'Donnell. Were all incumbents vulnerable? It looked like primary challenges were cropping up in both parties: not just against Republican McCain but the former Republican Specter and Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Michael Bennet, in Arkansas and Colorado. "They are mad and they are going to take it out on incumbents," NBC's Chuck Todd asserted at the time.
Later it became clear that Republicans were the source of newsmaking juice. The Tea Party made its run all summer long with a series of unknown candidates. Yet the waves they made were so convulsive that their non-celebrity status did not disqualify them; they made news on the basis of their ideology and their novelty…with, of course, an assist from the lone celebrity in their ranks, Sarah Palin.
Going down the list: Marco Rubio pushed aside the incumbent Republican governor Charlie Crist in Florida (10 mins)…Rand Paul defeated the hand-picked candidate of the Senate Minority Leader in Kentucky (6 mins)…Sharron Angle prevailed against the lieutenant governor of Nevada (7 mins)…Ken Buck beat a former lieutenant governor in Colorado (5 mins)…Joe Miller, endorsed by Palin in her home state of Alaska, narrowly beat Lisa Murkowski, the incumbent senator (12 mins)…and finally the coup de grace was Christine O'Donnell, coming from behind to win over a longtime congressman and former governor in Delaware (28 mins).
The Tea Party surge seems, so far, to have baffled the networks' political correspondents. The simple solution is to resort to celebrity coverage. So Palin has made repeated appearances throughout the campaign year. Even early on, when Palin appeared in Arizona to endorse McCain, her onetime mentor, CBS' Ben Tracy saw "a remarkable reversal of political fortune. Since the 2008 election, Palin has launched a bestseller. Become a media celebrity and just landed her own reality show…She is also becoming the de facto head of the growing Tea Party movement." At the end of the primary season, Palin celebrated the victory of another of her endorsements, O'Donnell in Delaware. "For the hierarchy we say Buck up or Stay in the Truck, Oh! You can imagine how that went over with the elites," was how CBS' Jeff Greenfield quoted her, as Palin prevailed in her proxy fight with fellow FOX News Channel commentator Karl Rove. Last week, ABC's Jonathan Karl played clips from a "slick new Web video that portrays her as a national leader of the Tea Party movement…It includes 28 shots of Palin but never once mentions the word Republican."
But how to describe the underlying phenomenon? The contrast between establishment and outsider is the default characterization. ABC's Karl on Delaware's O'Donnell is typical: "She has got an endorsement from Sarah Palin and she is driving the Republican establishment nuts." But what does that mean? Individual Tea Party candidates have attracted attention because of idiosyncratic policy positions that are radically different from mainstream GOP thinking: NBC's John Yang quoted Paul's skepticism on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show about civil rights lunch-counter legislation; Angle, the Second Amendment advocate, "advocated an armed insurrection against the government," as CBS' Nancy Cordes put it; and, most famously, O'Donnell politicized chastity: "I know many sexual virgins who are not sexually pure," was a 12-year-old quote used by CBS' Cordes. "I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven," was the O'Donnell soundbite that her namesake Kelly at NBC could not resist.
The impression created by this flamboyant collection is that the difference between establishment and outsider amounts to the difference between the serious and the flakey. Is that accurate? A few suggestions have surfaced in the course of campaign coverage about what the Tea Party insurgency represents but nothing seems like settled wisdom. So there is plenty of reporting work to do between now and Election Day.
Does the Tea Party merely represent the grassroots activist wing of the Republican Party? If so, what was at stake during those primary contests in which so-called establishment candidates fared so poorly? If not, what are the policy differences between the Tea Party and the Republican Party? NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, for one, doubts that there are substantive policy differences between Tea and GOP. She sees only tactics: "What is happening here is really a vivid example of the conflict within the Republican Party about what kinds of candidates and what brand of politics could work best in November." What accounted for candidate O'Donnell's surge in Delaware? "Outside Tea Party money. Sarah Palin's influence."
CBS' Cordes generalized that "some Tea Party victories are giving GOP leaders heartburn." Maybe. But maybe the opposite is happening--the victories allow the GOP to revitalize an unpopular brand, using inside-the-Beltway funds to bolster a new, insurgent image. For example, when Angle won her primary in Nevada, ABC's Karl noted that her anti-government outsider campaign was "going nowhere until big money conservative groups jumped into the race, spending more than $1m on her behalf." For a show-&-tell, Karl ran a clip from the Club For Growth PAC. When Buck, "the Tea Party favorite," defeated "the choice of the Republican establishment," in Colorado, CBS' Greenfield noted a $2m assist from the Virginia-based Americans for Job Security.
CBS' Tracy followed the $8m distributed by longtime Republican operative Sal Russo from his Sacramento office under the Tea Party Express label, including 24 different TV ads, to help Miller and Angle and O'Donnell in Alaska and Nevada and Delaware. Tracy noted an "ugly rift with other Tea Partiers. They worry that the Express is the Republican Party's attempt to co-opt their movement." Tracy's colleague Armen Keteyian filed a CBS News Investigation that found $14m in Republican funds in the past two months funneled through "shadow groups boasting upbeat bipartisan names" like Americans For Prosperity or Americans Future Fund. His visit to the Committee for Truth in Politics was priceless. "Can you tell me how many members are on the committee?" "No." "Could you tell me how I could become a member?" "I do not know. I do not think you could." "Could you tell me who your donors are?" "Of course not." Such shadow groups attracted $4m in Democratic funds over the same period.
CBS' Greenfield posed the question thus in August: "Republican rank and file voters have rejected their leaders' suggestions as to who the strongest Republican would be in the fall. We are going to find out in November whether the Tea Party sympathizers are going to get new angry voters; or whether these candidates are going to turn off moderates. I think control of the Senate could depend on the answer to that question." A couple of weeks later, Greenfield put it this way: "Intensity is all on the side of the Tea Partiers and what the regulars fear is if Tea Party candidates win, Republican control of the Senate is less likely." Then after the September Delaware primary, Greenfield shifted once more: "Primarily the Tea Party folks are not Republicans," he declared. "They are angry at Republicans who backed bank bailouts and industry bailouts and anything that looked like working with Obama and Democrats…They care far less about winning the Senate than dumping big spenders." NBC's Todd pointed to South Carolina's Jim DeMint as the "unofficial leader" of such a Tea Party voting bloc in the Senate. DeMint envisions a "common sense" group that will abolish federal deficit spending and revoke universal health insurance.
An understanding of the role of the Tea Party in Republican politics will not just tell us about the composition of the GOP caucus in the Senate in the next Congress; it will also offer insight into the contest for control of the House. The mantra for the coverage of the House contest so far this year has been the enthusiasm gap, "a 25% enthusiasm gap" as CBS' Cordes put it. ABC's Karl surveyed the turnout in primary elections, with record GOP highs in nine states and record Democratic lows in eleven states: "It is called the enthusiasm gap." "A big enthusiasm gap right now," declared ABC's Stephanopoulos, contrasting a 2% partisan difference among registered voters with a 13% gap among those likely to vote. NBC's Todd reported on his network's poll: generic support for the two parties is even "but among those voters who tell us they are most likely to go to the polls it is a 9% Republican edge. That would be a blowout."
Obviously, one way to cover this gap is to explain the apathy of Democratic-leaning voters. Given the networks' preference for a Presidential focus in their political coverage, we can be certain that there will be no shortage of attention paid to the negative side of the enthusiasm gap. Witness the oft-repeated soundbite at CNBC's town hall meeting last week, quoted here by ABC's Tapper, when Obama himself was told directly by a loyal supporter that she was exhausted by her efforts to defend him and his policies.
The positive side of the enthusiasm gap will be harder to cover but should yield more insight. There is no sign of a resurgence of popularity for the Republican Party per se. So the prospect for a heavy turnout in favor of Republican candidates in House races presumably reflects the mobilization of Tea Party voters. ABC's Stephanopoulos cited his network's poll that showed 26% of likely voters with a strongly favorable opinion of the Tea Party: "96%--it is almost impossible to get numbers that high--disapprove of the job President Obama is doing…These Tea Party voters may not like Republicans; but they hate the Democrats."
The arms-length distance is mutual. The House Republicans' Pledge to America platform made only tepid gestures towards targeting them. "In a nod to the Tea Party," observed CBS' Cordes, "the Pledge is littered with references to the Constitution." It promises merely to reduce deficit spending not to end it as DeMint wants to do in the Senate. ABC's Karl found no pledge to control either Social Security or Medicare and concluded that "this is hardly a Tea Party manifesto."
The key question for the final few weeks of the campaign for control of the House goes like this. How many hostages to fortune will the Republican leadership have to offer to Tea Party voters to keep their enthusiasm alive? Or will the Democratic electorate remain so apathetic in this face of such grindingly negative economic conditions that they pose no threat to pry the GOP's gerrybuilt electoral coalition apart? And how many hostages to fortune will Democrats, in turn, feel obliged to offer to their base to mobilize them--or, conversely, to independents to staunch their defections?
Be on guard for explanations that rely on bland "anti-incumbent" sentiment or vague duels between an "establishment" and "outsiders." Campaign coverage will need to specify what concrete policy differences are at stake--and who is supplying the money to fund which partisans.
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