Every four years, the two presidential candidates do battle in a series of high-stakes televised events that could shape the outcome of the campaign. They also take part in some highly scripted programming where little real news is made and few viewers’ minds are changed.
Voters who take the word of elite political journalists would be forgiven for thinking that the first events are the presidential debates and the second are the party conventions, but as the political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien show, the truth is actually the opposite (see also James Stimson’s Tides of Consent, which reaches a similar conclusion). Party conventions help to remind partisans who have strayed from their core views what they really believe and also influence independents who don’t have strong links to either party, creating bounces in the polls that frequently persist through the end of the campaign. By contrast, the well-practiced exchanges that dominate presidential debates rarely provide the game-changing moments that the media loves to pretend are commonplace. Indeed, the debates occur too late to have much effect in all but the closest races.
Instead, however, the tedious quadrennial debate over the value of convention coverage has mistakenly centered, as it usually does, on their news value. It’s true in a narrow sense that little “news” is made at the conventions these days, but bean-counting juxtapositions of the costs of coverage and the likelihood of important news being made miss the point. News outlets don’t want the same convention story as every other media organization and are willing to pay more for their own in-house version, which leads them to devote more attention to the conventions to justify their investment in that coverage. In that sense, the costs of reporting from Tampa and Charlotte are a small price to pay for the civics lessons that the conventions provide.
So why are so many journalists deriding the conventions as hours-long infomercials even as my fellow political scientists defend their merits? The problem, in short, is that the conventions undermine journalistic “voice.” In every other aspect of the campaign, the candidates and their messages are filtered through journalists who are reticent to allow them to speak or be quoted at any length without interpretation or analysis. While scrutinizing policy proposals and fact-checking their claims can be valuable exercises, far more coverage displaces the candidates’ messages in favor of ill-informed horse race analysis and theater critic-style analysis of the “optics” of the campaign. Unlike the debates, which are moderated by journalists, the conventions allow the parties and the candidate to speak to voters unfiltered in prime time. That may be threatening to the professional status of journalists, but it’s good for America.