When I was a kid, I enjoyed creating mock horse races on the oval rug in my family’s living room. I would lay out a track using masking tape or a ball of yarn. Then, I would roll a set of dice and advance each “horse” – they were either coins or marbles. Getting lost in my fantasy world for hours at a time, I devised a complicated system of points and handicaps that resembled an actual racetrack - although my dog Sam never seemed interested in placing a wager.
Perhaps I should have gone into journalism, because the mainstream media, and especially the cable news networks, are obsessed with turning our elections into horse races. And they are living in at least as much of a fantasy world as I was.
Consider the election coverage I caught on CNN last Thursday. Three stories dominated the report: (1) Mitt Romney’s ridiculous statement that the $375,000 he earned last year from speaking engagements amounts to “not much.” (2) The revelation that Rick Santorum actually won the New Hampshire primary, coupled with Romney’s not-so-ridiculous statement that losing by 36 votes is a “virtual tie.” (3) The ongoing quest of Newt Gingrich to break the all-time record for hypocritical campaign accusations.
All of these are interesting, seemingly important stories to cover. Each has the potential to help decide who will be the Republican nominee. And each can be broken
down into a snappy five-second soundbite that can be repeated at the watercooler.
But here’s the rub: None of these stories explain the substantive differences of policy and ideology that should be the determining factor in how votes are cast. None of them tell us anything about who would be a better president. They’re all about the spectacle of the horse race, the child-like obsession with polls and gaffes that has nothing to do with the immense challenges facing our nation and our broken political system. If we can’t learn to see beyond this spectacle, we are in danger of losing not just the race, but also all our coins and marbles.
Tomorrow, in part 2 of “Beyond the Horse Race,” I’ll describe the issues that, in my opinion, are most critical for the 2012 election - and how the horse race distorts or ignores them.