There’s potential for ambiguity here about just what “horse race” journalism is, and what is being criticized. But Rosen is correct that there’s little point, other than filling air time and column inches, in trying to “handicap” the outcome of a tightly contested election two days before the vote. Fineman (and just about everyone else) was wrong, and so he (and just about everyone else) was embarrassed. But had he been right, where does the benefit accrue, besides to his own reputation?
It would be a mistake, though, to move from that narrow point to the idea that reporters should not to try to figure out “who’s ahead” and “how the insiders are sizing up the contest” over the course of a campaign, and should instead wait for the voters to make their decision. The reasons have to do with how campaigns unfold, and where ordinary readers stand in relation to those campaigns.
First, a clarification: there’s a good argument that general elections—in particular, general presidential elections—are driven primarily by “the fundamentals,” especially the state of the economy, and that most of what happens in campaigns (the gaffes, the messaging strategies, etc.) doesn’t amount to much. That’s the argument I had in mind when I wrote in June 2010 that the horse race is often “simple, predictable, and a bit boring,” and so the press should devote less time to it.
But, as I failed to note at the time, primary elections are different. A primary campaign, and especially its early “invisible” period, can be understood as a time when party leaders—in other words, “insiders”—talk to, and argue with, each other about who their standard-bearer should be. Many factors go into that choice, from perceptions about electability to petty personal considerations. But the argument is, in large part, a contest over who wields power within the party, and what sort of values and goals the party wants to prioritize.
For the 2012 presidential cycle, this argument has been underway for months within the Republican Party. And the way it plays out will shape the choices available to GOP voters. In even the earliest primary and caucus states, voters choose from the options presented by party insiders (or, in some years, ratify the insiders’ choice). If reporters wait for the voters to weigh in to take stock of who’s ahead, they’ll have missed much of the story.
If you’re an ordinary voter, that might seem unfair. But one of the features of American democracy is that ordinary voters who care deeply about their party’s choice can, through the commitment of time and energy, influence the insider conversation. And good horse race coverage can help them understand how to do that effectively, by making the conversation transparent. If you start from the understanding that important party decisions are made before the voters weigh in, the question “who’s winning?”—or, alternately, “who is the party choosing, and which people are making that choice?”—becomes one of the best ways to give ordinary citizens who want to become more active political participants the information they need. (If you’re not a party member, meanwhile, knowing the process by which the party made its choice—rather than just the outcome it arrived at—can still help inform your own political participation.)
Obviously, most horse race coverage isn’t written this way. Just as obviously, not all campaign coverage should be horse race coverage. (Press outlets covering the current campaign would do well to take the advice offered by Chris Hayes in 2008: rotate reporters, do more features and less daily reporting, assign the policy pieces to beat experts, publish less; those measures could both guard against the shallowest forms of horse race reporting and add substance to policy-oriented work.) And perhaps less obviously but no less important, not all political coverage should be campaign coverage, even in the midst of a campaign.
So absolutely, let’s have less journalism that’s nothing more than prognostication or armchair strategizing. But let’s have more reporting that explores the process by which our political leaders are selected, and makes it intelligible to ordinary people. That’s coverage of the “horse race”—and it’s valuable, democracy-sustaining work.