Can pundits please stop talking about 2016? The election is more than three years away, and there’s nothing meaningful to report about who will be the next president.
Lack of newsworthiness hasn’t stopped almost every major news source from breathlessly reporting on polls and rumors about the 2016 candidates, none of whom have officially announced they are running. Right now, Hillary Clinton eating lunch with Barack Obama is being treated like a major news story. The Christian Science Monitor, ostensibly a serious news outlet, is offering its readers “three theories” about what the lunch means.
Journalism (which should really be called empty bloviating) about the faraway election is a confession by pundits that they need horserace coverage like a junkie needs heroin.
Pointless campaign reporting is not a new addiction for the national media. Every modern election has early media favorites, but they often choose not to run and they rarely win their party’s primary, much less the presidency.
In 1973, Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign existed only in the mind of Carter himself and a few close advisers. In the wake of Richard Nixon’s 49-state landslide re-election, pundits thought the Democrats would either run another liberal – Ted Kennedy or Hubert Humphrey – or wise up from their defeat and choose an electable conservative like Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Kennedy and Humphrey chose not to run, and Jackson didn’t win a single primary.
In 1985, tout le monde knew that Gary Hart was destined to be the Democrat’s 1988 presidential candidate. After all, Hart had emerged from nowhere in ’84 and almost beaten Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination. Early polling showed Hart had a double digit lead against his closest opponent – Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca. Of course Hart didn’t win, since a sex scandal forced him out of the race, and Iacocca never even entered the election.
In 2005, everybody who was anybody knew that the ’08 campaign was between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Clinton was riding high. Her husband was the most popular living president and her work in the Senate kept her in the national spotlight. Giuliani was the heroic mayor of New York who won the nation’s heart after 9/11. Compared to those two, Barack Obama didn’t stand a chance.
Early predictions are unreliable because nobody knows what the next presidential campaign will be about. In 1973, nobody could have guessed that Nixon would resign the presidency and Carter would be able to focus his campaign on honesty and his role as a Washington outsider. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hadn’t happened, George W. Bush was still popular, and the economy was doing splendidly. None of this was true when the 2008 campaign began, which made Americans more receptive to Obama’s post-partisan message.
To be fair, the early favorite does occasionally end up winning. Reagan was the GOP’s nominee-in-waiting after 1976. In 2000, both Al Gore and Bush were early favorites. But with such a bad track record, political prognosticating this far away from an election is a terrible use of reporters’ time.
There are important issues at stake in Washington. Another fight over the debt ceiling is looming, some Republicans are threatening a government shutdown to defund Obamacare, and Congress is debating major changes to immigration policy. Relentless coverage of the 2016 election takes time away from those important issues, and leaves the public ill-served.
Journalists understandably love election coverage. It’s easy to report – just look over the newest polls or check the internet for something someone said about Hillary Clinton – and the story practically writes itself. Americans certainly enjoy the punditry – a study by three political scientists showed that people chose election coverage over policy-oriented news stories by an almost two to one margin.
If reporters must focus on campaign news, why not the 2014 midterms? They are much closer, and enough is known for meaningful reporting. Democrats have failed to recruit strong Senate candidates in several states, Mitch McConnell has a primary challenger, and the daughter of a former vice president is running against an incumbent of her own party. That’s all entertaining horserace coverage and has the added virtue of not being mindless speculation.