The media primary

After Super Tuesday, Narrative-Shift Wednesday. Yesterday, 14 states, plus American Samoa and Democrats living abroad, voted. Bernie Sanders, the prior Democratic frontrunner, won three of them, and is on track to win California, which awards more delegates than any other state; otherwise, Joe Biden—revitalized since his big win in South Carolina on Saturday—swept the board, winning nine states including Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. (Maine is still too close to call.) Biden’s resurgence—just weeks after many pundits all but wrote off his campaign following its fifth-place finish in New Hampshire—marks another whiplash moment in a primary season that’s been full of them.

Should we have seen this one coming? Perhaps, though as Astead W. Herndon, a politics reporter at the New York Times, tweeted last night, plenty of contingencies—Elizabeth Warren taking out Michael Bloomberg at the debates; South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsing Biden; Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar dropping out and backing Biden, too—have entered play since New Hampshire. Journalists and pundits love to post-rationalize, but in politics, nothing is inevitable.

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Another key factor behind Biden’s renaissance? The media. As one Biden aide put it, he rode an “earned media tsunami” heading into Super Tuesday; after South Carolina, CNN’s Brian Stelter noted, Biden profited from “made-for-TV moment after made-for-TV moment.” (Earned media refers, essentially, to airtime a candidate didn’t pay for, like when MSNBC carried Biden’s Monday-night rally with Klobuchar and Beto O’Rourke without interruption at significant length.) According to one firm that monitors such things, Biden’s earned media between polls closing in South Carolina and yesterday evening may have topped $70 million in monetary value. That’s a lot of earning.

Advertising, nontraditional media platforms, and other, non-media dynamics also play roles, of course. Nonetheless, as Sam Stein and Maxwell Tani reported last week for the Daily Beast, it appears, in this cycle, as if “the main thing that is moving the electorate is the national media and there’s not really a close second.” Aides to every major Democratic campaign told Stein and Tani that they’ve “been stunned by the degree to which the conversation taking place on cable and national news has impacted the trajectory of the race.” This conclusion elicited some pushback online. If cable news is so crucial, how come Sanders—who, it is safe to say, is not a favorite of the TV pundit class—is doing so well; if ad dollars matter less, how to explain Michael Bloomberg’s rapid, cash-fueled rise in the polls?

These were—and still are—legitimate questions that point to a complex picture. Still, Biden’s performance since they were raised—along with Bloomberg’s struggles yesterday—looks like clear proof that news narratives count for a lot. As the Super Tuesday results came in, several political reporters pointed out that Biden did very well in areas where he was massively outspent by other candidates, and where he had little ground game or infrastructure to speak of. (Biden’s campaign pushed back on aspects of this characterization.) This phenomenon is hardly unprecedented. By roughly this point of the 2016 cycle, Donald Trump was running a relatively light operation and had spent less on ads than five of his Republican rivals (as well as Sanders and Hillary Clinton)—and yet he was already on his way to $2 billion worth of earned media, orders of magnitude beyond any other candidate. We all know how that one turned out.

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In other words, what we say matters. A lot. Many journalists, it would seem, like to conceive of themselves as being above the fray—impartial observers who listen to what voters are thinking and report it back to them. In practice, we exist as part of a messy feedback loop; our judgments—who’s electable, who isn’t; who’s surging, who’s not—are crucial in shaping what voters think. A key reason that this Democratic primary season has felt disorienting is that we’ve shuffled through contradictory narratives at a dizzying pace. O’Rourke is one to watch; now he’s out. Buttigieg is on a roll; now he’s out. Warren is the frontrunner; Warren was the frontrunner for about five minutes. Bloomberg is killing on TV; Bloomberg has been killed on TV. Amy has Klomentum; Biden has Joementum. Sanders is inevitable; now he’s hanging on.

Barring a stunning fightback from Bloomberg or Warren (or *insert obligatory mention of Tulsi Gabbard here*), we now, finally, have a two-horse race: Biden v. Sanders. That gives political media—and cable news executives, in particular—a rare chance to reset; we can stop chasing flavors of the month and making bad predictions, and instead focus on the very clear, substantive choice facing the Democratic Party and the country. As Matthew Yglesias, of Vox, tweeted last night, of Biden’s surge, “[me, drunk with power] Earned media rules everything!” It’s time to sober up, and end the whiplash.

Below, more on Super Tuesday and 2020:

  • Burisma’s back, alright?: With Biden back at the top of the Democratic field, Republicans may redouble their efforts to cast aspersions on his son Hunter, and his role on the board of the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. (The Hunter Biden narrative was at the center of Trump’s impeachment trial, if you can remember that far back.) This week, we learned that Ron Johnson, Republican senator for Wisconsin, is planning to subpoena a witness linked to Burisma. Susan Hennessey, of Lawfare, argues that the media is “embarrassing” itself by taking Republicans’ Burisma claims seriously.
  • Boon companion: For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Sam Thielman and Ishaan Jhaveri analyzed where Bloomberg’s TV ad spend has been going. His outlay, Thielman and Jhaveri write, “is both a bid to bypass mediators like the press and the party machine, and a huge financial boon to local newsrooms across the country, where station-level advertising is a primary source of income.”
  • Swoon companion: Perhaps no candidate this cycle benefited from earned media as much as Buttigieg, whose aggressive courting of the political press elevated him from obscurity to genuine contention. After he dropped out, “reporters and pundits gave him a final swoon, for old time’s sake,” Politico’s Jack Shafer writes. “As if crowding onto a packed subway car, the commentariat jostled to pay homage to Buttigieg’s future.”
  • Last night’s other races: Super Tuesday also saw some intriguing contests down ballot, on both sides. Jeff Sessions, who gave up his Senate seat in Alabama to become Trump’s first attorney general, is trying to win that seat back; yesterday, he qualified for a runoff election against Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach, with the winner set to face Democrat Doug Jones in November. (Roy Moore, who Jones beat in 2017, is now out of contention.) On the Democratic side, Henry Cuellar, a moderate congressman from Texas, is currently beating a progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, in a race which courted widespread media attention. And Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur’s bid to be a congressman in California has fallen flat.
  • Obstacles to voting: In some places yesterday, people had to wait in line for hours in order to vote. The issue occasionally punctuated cable news coverage last night; on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow called the obstacles to voting “an outrage.”


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.