Big Bet, Small Stakes

Reporting on the "Contract" debate should be clear: it didn't do much

At his WaPo blog, Chris Cillizza has a post up that hashes over the question of whether Republicans, poised to make major gains at the mid-terms, need a new “Contract with America”—an updated version of the document that the Newt Gingrich-led GOP produced on its way to a big win in 1994. Various operatives get space to argue pro (voters need something to vote for!) and con (it’d just give the Dems a target!), before the conclusion:

House Republican leaders have made a big strategic bet that Gingrich is right. On Nov. 2, we’ll find out if that bet was the right one.

But in all likelihood, we’ll find out nothing of the sort. Or at least, nothing that we don’t know now, which is that these gimmick platforms—whether the Contract with America, or, twelve years later, the Democrats’ “Six in ‘06” agenda—don’t seem to make much of an impression on voters.

There’s ample evidence that only a small portion of the electorate was even aware of the Contract with America at the time of the 1994 election, much of it rounded up in a good Media Matters item from 2006. This representative passage comes from a poll just before the vote (PDF) by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press (now the Pew Center), which was flagged by Media Matters:

The much-ballyhooed Republican Contract With America has failed to do much to improve the prospects of GOP candidates this fall. But neither has it boomeranged to the degree many Democrats had hoped. In the new survey, only three in ten (29%) claimed to have heard about this document signed by over 300 Republican congressional candidates last month. Overall about as many voters say it makes them more likely to vote Republican as say less likely (7% vs. 6%).

Twenty-nine percent of voters is not nothing, but political information is not randomly distributed among the electorate. If a minority of voters is aware of some bit of political news, it’s a good bet that they’re the most politically engaged people—which means the most likely to already hold strong political views. The political stories with the potential to move votes are the rare ones that break through to people who don’t follow politics closely, and are only weakly attached to a party. The Contract with America wasn’t one of those stories.

That doesn’t mean that reporters shouldn’t report on this debate, if it’s what the political class is chattering about at the moment. It’s interesting, if you’re a political junkie, to know that this is the sort of thing GOP consultants are spending (and, presumably, billing) their time on at the moment. And it’s possible that these campaign platforms might matter in a roundabout way, by fostering cooperation among partisan allies: a 2006 Hill article cited by Media Matters (no longer online, but retrievable through Lexis-Nexis) suggests that the Contract played a role in “creating new unity among disparate camps of incumbents” and “bettering the campaigns of their challenger candidates.”

But we should keep things in perspective, too. Truth is, while this debate might seem like a big bet to the politicos who craft mission statements and message strategies for a living, in the bigger picture the stakes are pretty small.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.