Campaign 2016 received only 246 minutes of coverage on the three broadcast networks' weekday nightly newscasts during January. That is far less than the last three election-year Januaries.
Here is the sequence for the month of January for the last eight cycles: 2016 -- 246; 2012 -- 363; 2008 -- 520; 2004 -- 324; 2000 -- 211; 1996 -- 70; 1992 -- 107; 1988 -- 245.
What has happened? Can our senses be deceiving us? It feels like the news is all-election all-the-time. So why the lull?
Never fear, politics fans. The January number is merely an aberration of the calendar. This year the Iowa caucuses were not held until February 1st so there was no actual voting in January 2016. By contrast, in 2012 and 2008, not only had the caucusgoers of Iowa met before January ended, but votes had been cast in the primaries of New Hampshire and South Carolina and Florida too.
The first week of February has already logged an additional 117 minutes of campaign coverage. We are well on track to continue the trend of 2015 (see the Year in Review 2015), which was the second heaviest penultimate year of campaign coverage in our database, second only to the build up to Campaign 2008.
This increased attention paid to the Presidential election campaign appears, at first sight, to represent an increased interest in politics. Yet it coincides with two contradictory countervailing trends. First, the interest in non-Presidential electoral politics (the mid-term elections, statewide Senate and Gubernatorial campaigns) has actually fallen at the same time as Presidential coverage has increased (see the Year in Review 2014). Second, coverage of actual politics (rather than electoral politics), namely the business of the federal government in its various branches, has also fallen (trend data here).
So, the enormous attention paid to the Presidential campaign represents a shift in the mix of political coverage rather than an increased interest in politics per se. So much interest in who is going to be the next President! So little interest in what the President does as soon as he (or she?) enters the Oval Office!
I draw two conclusions. One concerns the structure of the permanent Presidential campaign, which is that of a Reality TV contest, with easily identifiable, oversized, caricaturish personalities, a format that is tailor-made for television. The second suggests that the Presidential campaign is not just about politics: in addition, it stands proxy for the vast socio-economic and demographic disruptions that are roiling the nation, dramatizing issues of far greater scope than the mere power of the federal government.
Think of the most newsworthy of all Presidential elections, Campaign 2008 -- McCain, Rodham Clinton, Obama -- in which a trio of oversized personalities represented issues as huge as the legacy of the Vietnam War, the impact of the Feminist Movement, the rise of multiethnic multiculturalism.
The same, I suspect, is happening now during Campaign 2016, with its own new cast of oversized personalities, and its own set of overarching abstract themes that television journalism has a hard time covering directly, precisely because of their abstract nature, but is able to refer to symbolically, via the coverage of the candidates.
Here, finally, we find, embedded in the dramatic structure of a Reality TV contest, a forum where we can grapple with the societal resonance of the War on Terrorism following 9/11, of the Financial Collapse of 2008, of Globalization & Immigration. Here finally, the inchoate forces of the nativist Tea Party and the anti-capitalist Occupy Wall Street find their embodiment, in the figures of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
And who knows? If the fate of the Democratic nomination turns out to be decided by a contest over who wins the African-American vote, Campaign 2016 may be the vehicle by which Black Lives Matter, too, enters the political mainstream.
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