Social Media or Not, a Primary Is Still a Primary

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


I’m going to pick on my friend Ezra Klein today. He begins an essay about changes in American politics with a list of four recent developments in this year’s presidential primary race:

  • First, Scott Walker, who looked to be the conservative establishment’s pick for the GOP nomination, dropped out of the race.
  • Then John Boehner unexpectedly resigned from Congress….
  • Then an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released showing Bernie Sanders merely 7 points behind Hillary Clinton….
  • The same poll showed that Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina — the GOP’s true outsider candidates — have reached a combined 52 percent in the polls, while Jeb Bush, the GOP’s top insider candidate, has plummeted from 23 percent to 7 percent.

“Let’s state the obvious,” says Klein. “No pundit anywhere predicted any two of these things back in June. Hell, I’m not aware of a pundit who predicted even one of them….The models we typically use to understand American politics are breaking down.”

Before we get to those models, let’s talk about whether they’re really breaking down in the first place. Klein is surely right that nobody predicted precisely the four things he mentions. But that sets the bar way too high. Nobody’s ever pretended that a model of politics can do that. Instead, let’s go through them in a more general sense:

  • Every observer of primaries has written about the “winnowing” effect. This is exactly what it sounds like: some candidates will turn out to be worse than expected and will lose the support of donors and voters. Then they’ll drop out. Nobody ever knows exactly who this will be—that’s why we run actual races—but everyone expected that at least one or two seemingly strong candidates would drop out before the Iowa caucuses.
  • Pundits have been talking about the possibility of Boehner resigning for at least a year. He has a thankless job these days and was basically forced out by the tea party. But speakers have lost support before—Newt Gingrich is the most dramatic recent example—and what happened to Boehner, though unusual, isn’t unheard of.
  • Outsider candidates—Eugene McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley—have a long history of spiking in the polls and giving establishment leaders fits. Sometimes they even win their primary battles, as George McGovern and Barack Obama did.
  • OK, this one is pretty unusual.

Klein’s theory is that party insiders have lost a significant amount of influence in our brave new world of internet news sources and social media. And that might be true. But parties have been losing power for a long time, and changes in media infrastructure are nothing new. Candidates who took advantage of the rise of radio (FDR), then the rise of TV (Kennedy, Nixon), and then the rise of the web (Obama) have always done well. In terms of infrastructure, candidates have had to adapt to the rise of primaries, the rise of direct mail, the rise of microtargeting, and much more. Nothing ever stays the same.

Has social media fundamentally changed the landscape of presidential campaigns? I’m not really convinced. It’s certainly changed things, but I’m not sure it’s changed things any more than the routine-yet-seismic shifts that have been documented about once a decade in campaign tomes going back to Theodore White in 1960.1 Our traditional models of presidential politics need to keep up with the times, but my guess is that they’re not quite ready for the graveyard yet.

1Off the top of my head: television in the 60s; convention/nominating rules in the 70s; direct mail in the 80s; talk radio/cable news in the 90s; web/microtargeting in the 00s; social media in the teens.

POSTSCRIPT: But I admit that there has been one big change this year: the rise of the first name. We have Bernie, Hillary, Carly, and Jeb. Has there ever been a primary campaign with more candidates going by their first names? What’s up with that?

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

We’re falling behind our online fundraising goals and we can’t sustain coming up short on donations month after month. Perhaps you’ve heard? It is impossibly hard in the news business right now, with layoffs intensifying and fancy new startups and funding going kaput.

The crisis facing journalism and democracy isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither is Mother Jones, our readers, or our unique way of doing in-depth reporting that exists to bring about change.

Which is exactly why, despite the challenges we face, we just took a big gulp and joined forces with The Center for Investigative Reporting, a team of ace journalists who create the amazing podcast and public radio show Reveal.

If you can part with even just a few bucks, please help us pick up the pace of donations. We simply can’t afford to keep falling behind on our fundraising targets month after month.

Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery said it well to our team recently, and that team 100 percent includes readers like you who make it all possible: “This is a year to prove that we can pull off this merger, grow our audiences and impact, attract more funding and keep growing. More broadly, it’s a year when the very future of both journalism and democracy is on the line. We have to go for every important story, every reader/listener/viewer, and leave it all on the field. I’m very proud of all the hard work that’s gotten us to this moment, and confident that we can meet it.”

Let’s do this. If you can right now, please support Mother Jones and investigative journalism with an urgently needed donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate