Back in January, Will Oremus of Slate posted a “horse-race” animated video based on the Republican nominating contest so far. Complete with a checkered-flag delegate count and a news ticker with headlines like “Romney and Perry Are Neck and Neck,” the cartoon is a surprisingly good overview of the past twenty-three months of indecision. It’s also a vivid symbol of the current state of electoral politics. As Oremus concludes, “If people want a horse race, why not give them a horse race?”
True enough. But which people are we talking about? From the media blitz of biweekly debates, daily front page stories, and ubiquitous attack ads, you’d think prospective voters would be turning out in record numbers. But participation in caucuses and primaries has so far been dismal, begging the question of whether this election cycle is more about entertainment than participation.
Compared with 2008, turnout has been down in almost every state nominating contest, from a 7 percent drop in Colorado, to almost 25 percent in Nevada, Minnesota, and Florida, to more than half in Missouri. And even in states where numbers were more or less the same as in 2008, the share of registered Republicans among participants has dropped off. In New Hampshire, this group made up 17 percent less than during the previous cycle. South Carolina is the only state to see a substantial increase from 2008, despite the fact that overall spending and media attention was higher in other states like Florida. As Barry Sussman of Nieman Watchdog points out, this downward trend is occurring despite the fact that there is no Democratic contest to siphon off moderates and independents.
But what is really surprising about the current election cycle is the level of spectacle it is assuming. Voter interest may be down across the board, but viewer interest is way up. Ratings for the almost biweekly Republican debates have dwarfed 2008-cycle numbers, and have gone up since the beginning of the year. Millions have tuned in to watch the slick pageantry—which for some reason usually includes studio audiences—and comparisons to reality TV are not hard to find.
Some observers say that the unending debates this year have had a positive impact, perhaps making spending on ads less attractive if candidates can get their message out in a kind of public forum. This may be a valuable tool in the immediate aftermath of the Citizens United decision, goes the argument. Fair point. But with such low turnout in the political process itself, does it really matter where the media blitz is coming from? If candidates are just going over rehearsed sound bites and attacking each other, how valuable is it?
The real danger is an election cycle in which people are more interested in passive entertainment than active participation—and a media system that enables this turnover. The overwhelming media circus is what Tom Engelhardt of The Nation calls a “too-big-to-fail juggernaut,” divorced from voters as well as reality.
Slate’s horse race video is a good metaphor, taking us through the nearly two years of PR campaigns, personal attacks, and candidacy announcements that we’ve seen so far. The actual general election—the part where a group of people who are definitely on the ballot compete for actual votes—lasts just under ten weeks. But in order to get to that point, we need to endure another six months of increasingly nasty debates, slick attack ads, and endless dispatches from the Derby infield. Don’t forget the popcorn.
Sam Ross-Brown is an assistant editor at Utne Reader.