After every presidential election, journalists, academics and political operatives gather for various campaign post-mortems and autopsies. Brows furrow. What went right? What went wrong?
After much cluck-clucking and tut-tutting, everyone agrees media people must do things differently next time. Fewer polls, better polls, more issue coverage, less on the horserace, listen to voters, etc.
Then we all go out and sin again in four years.
After the polling and handicapping debacle of 2016, perhaps things really will change in 2020. But probably not. Journalism’s performance in 2016 was often driven by bottom-line considerations: more click bait, more hits, more eyeballs, more buzz, tweets and edge — all to deal with improving bottom lines of media companies.
Nothing’s going to change that, especially when many news organizations are struggling to survive and have shareholders to please.
But if the journalism community doesn’t agree to some changes, Donald Trump’s success is going to embolden other celebrities. They will say outrageous things and journalists will dutifully – and profitably – report it all. To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with celebrity candidates. The nominating system just shouldn’t be rigged — to borrow a phrase — in their favor.
Donald Trump is very much a product of the decision by parties and news organizations to use polls to decide which candidates got onto pre-primary debate stages and where they stood. Other credible candidates, including several national political leaders, were pushed to the fringes, or to the “kids table.”
So here is a simple suggestion to add to the list of things that ought to change in four years: Don’t use polls to decide the placement of candidates in primary debates. Use a lottery.
Polls are limited instruments as we’ve just seen. Using them to decide which candidates get into a debate and which candidates are relegated to the kids table is guaranteed to give celebrity candidates center stage and greater attention. That limits what’s heard from less well-known but perhaps more substantive candidates.
Given how far off the mark polls were on election night, why should polls be the arbiters of who gets a good position on stage and who doesn’t? (Remember how some candidates were sidelined in early debates by microscopic changes in polls? Some of the polling screw-ups on election night weren’t microscopic.)
Other metrics can be used to determine who gets considered for inclusion in the lottery. Has the candidate qualified for federal matching funds? Are they on the ballot in 50 states? Or are they on the ballot in at least enough to give them a majority of delegates to a nominating convention — or 270 electoral votes?
Instead of just one “main event” and a “kids table” debate, there would be randomly chosen groupings. Celebrity candidates will still stand out but they won’t get an unfair advantage and others would have a better chance to be heard by voters.
If something like that is not done, we can look for a Kim Kardashian to be center stage in the 2020 Democratic primary debates.
Author’s note: David Yepsen is former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Prior to that he was a political writer and columnist for the Des Moines Register.