It's only February, but I have a pretty good idea about how the election is going to proceed from this point forward. Mitt Romney is going to struggle through the primaries, eventually dispatching Rick Santorum. But unlike many nominees, instead of being strengthened by the primary process, he will have been weakened by it, demonstrating his persistence, but not much else. As the economy slowly improves, President Obama's approval rating will continue to inch up, and the Obama campaign will begin its assault on Romney's character, one that will be largely successful. The Romney campaign, meanwhile, will struggle in the face of that improving economy to come up with a compelling critique of the President, trying in vain to alter opinions about the incumbent that have been formed and solidified over the past four years. Obama will lead the tracking polls pretty much throughout, culminating in a win that is fairly close, but not uncomfortably so. In this it will resemble the 1996 campaign more than, say, the 2004 campaign, when the outcome was in doubt much of the way.
Of course, there will be twists and turns along the way—campaign gaffes, unforeseen events, maybe an international crisis. But there's a very good chance that those will be minor ups and downs in an election that will end up looking fairly predictable. And throughout this process, conservatives will shout that the liberal media is trying its darndest to make sure the Democrat wins, because that's what the liberal media does. I promise you, they'll be saying this. The closer we get to election day, the louder and more bitter the complaints will be. As is often the case, the volume of those complaints will have absolutely nothing to do with the actual content of coverage. But when they do talk about the content, look closely: they'll be arguing that coverage driven by the horse race is actually driven by bias.
The horse race bias is a real and consequential one, structuring how stories are framed and which questions get asked. When your starting point is the latest poll, the next step is to ask "Why?", which means that the question to ask about the front-runner is, "Why is he doing so well?" and the question to ask about the trailing candidate is "Why is he doing so poorly?" In order to answer those questions, you focus on everything the front-runner is succeeding at (and ignore the things he's not doing well), and focus on the things the challenger is failing at. The result is coverage that is very favorable to one candidate and very unfavorable to the other.
This is how it has been for decades, and ideology has nothing to do with it. But that won't stop Republicans from complaining about it. I offer this now as a heads-up, because this issue is going to be raised a lot once the GOP convention is over and it's truly a two-person race. So be prepared.
One last thing: Why am I so sure this race is going to proceed this way? The trajectory of the economy is one reason, but the other big one is that it seems that the more people get a look at Mitt Romney, the less they like him.
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