Two developments in the presidential race help illustrate the themes regarding how the media covers campaigns that I’ve been highlighting in recent posts. First, I tuned into the morning talk shows this Sunday to find multiple phone calls with Donald Trump occurring simultaneously. Both Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet the Press" and Jonathan Karl on ABC's "This Week" started their shows with telephone interviews with The Donald. And, true to form, they both managed to conduct almost an entire interview with the GOP front-runner with almost no effort to elicit his stance on key issues. Instead, Karl asked Trump about his views regarding Vice President Joe Biden entering the race, how he might do in Thursday’s debate among the Republican candidates, what he thought of Hillary’s character, and whether he’d run as a third-party candidate. Todd covered largely the same issues. In short, the focus was primarily on campaign process and candidate personalities – not on the policies Trump would pursue as president. (To be fair, Karl did ask Trump if he would bring back waterboarding – but I suppose that drives home my point.)
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: If journalists continue to treat Trump as a carnival sideshow by trying to elicit controversial statements, rather than as a serious candidate for the highest office in the land, he’s going to maintain the support of the populist faction of Republicans who already think the media is out of touch with reality. Despite much media speculation that Trump’s support would erode after recent highly publicized controversial comments regarding Mexican migrants and Republican politicians, the latest polls show him holding steady with the support of about 20% of those surveyed, ahead of his chief rivals Jeb Bush and Scott Walker.
The other big story, one that lit up the Twitterverse yesterday and is the subject of countless stories today, is speculation from the usual unnamed sources that Vice President Biden is thinking about throwing his hat into the presidential campaign ring. Again, as I have discussed repeatedly, the thought of several months covering Hillary’s inevitable coronation slog to the Democratic nomination has newsrooms across the country desperate to create the illusion of a real race. From this perspective, the Biden rumors are manna from heaven. The reality, however, is that Biden is a 72-year old man who ran for president twice before, in 1988 and 2008, and lost badly each time. (In 2008 he dropped out after drawing less than 1% in the Iowa caucus, far behind Hillary’s third-place finish.) It’s possible that eight years as vice president gives him a certain gravitas that he lacked before, as well as instant name recognition. Reflecting that name recognition, most polls give him about 10% support already, even though he’s not a declared candidacy.
But it also means that, if he runs, he automatically makes Hillary the candidate of change – (albeit not much change!). Even though their stances on most issues do not diverge markedly (foreign policy is a notable exception), it is not hard to envision Hillary portraying Biden as a candidate of the past. Of course, his candidacy would be buoyed by a media desperate to create the fiction of a competitive Democratic contest. Already the initial media reports are hinting at friction between Biden and the Big Dawg Bill Clinton, and they are framing a Biden candidacy in terms of the contrast between his strong ratings among voters on honesty and likability versus Clinton’s negative ratings on those characteristics. A Biden candidacy, goes the media narrative, would rescue the Democratic Party from the slow drip-drip of negative news stories about Clinton’s e-mails, money, and general lack of credibility, particularly among independents, which weaken her chances against Republicans. It would also fulfill the deathbed wish of Joe’s son Beau – another bonus in terms of media coverage. As evidence, read this tear-jerking account by Maureen Dowd (who apparently can read Joe’s mind) about Beau’s effort to get his father to run: “My kid’s dying, an anguished Joe Biden thought to himself, and he’s making sure I’m O.K.”
But while a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly draw favorable media coverage, it is important to remember that, among registered voters, he is not viewed much more favorably than is Hillary.
Moreover, most people already have an opinion of Uncle Joe, so those ratings aren’t likely to change that much. And, as with all vice presidents, Joe will have to confront the difficult task of separating himself from the Obama presidency without seeming to repudiate the president’s policies. This could lead to some awkward policy statements (see Clinton on the Keystone pipeline!) from a candidate who is already well known for his verbal miscues that have made him a Youtube favorite.
Nor is it likely that Joe is going to siphon much support from Bernie Sanders’s progressive coalition. In short, a Biden candidacy will undoubtedly generate quite a bit of media coverage, much of it initially positive, from a grateful media corps, but there’s no evidence right now suggesting that he could beat Clinton. At best, the current evidence indicates a Biden candidacy might create the semblance of a competitive nomination fight and push back the timetable for Clinton to clinch the race. The question remains whether that prospect is enough to persuade him to enter the fray. The answer may depend on whether Joe is willing to relinquish his time in the political spotlight, or whether, like Frank Skeffington, he wants one more shot at center stage. Will a presidential campaign be Joe’s Last Hurrah?
Matthew Dickinson publishes his Presidential Power blog at http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/.