Pushing a Narrative – and- Losing Perspective
Going into the 2nd Republican National Convention William H. Seward, former Governor of New York and two term United States Senator was the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential nomination. He had New York’s 70 delegates and a 100 or more from other states. In 1860, 233 delegates were needed for nomination. There were several other “favorite son” contenders including Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron, Edward Bates from Missouri, and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. None were considered strong challengers to Seward. On the first ballot it was Seward 173, Lincoln 102, Cameron 50, Chase 49 and Bates 48. Lincoln worked to become the “second choice” of many and detractors such as Horace Greeley had raised doubts about Seward’s electability – so on the second ballot it was Seward 184, Lincoln 181. And then on the third ballot many delegates shifted to Lincoln and he led Seward 231 ½ to 180. Ohio announced a shift of 4 delegates from Chase to Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln became the nominee and the rest is history. History also records the nomination of Democrat James K Polk that took until the 9th ballot to best the prohibitive favorite Martin Van Buren. History also records the 3rd ballot nomination of Thomas Dewey in 1948 over Taft and Stassen neither of whom would throw their support to the other and the leader coming in to the convention secured the nomination. There have been several other Conventions that took more than one ballot to nominate the party’s candidate. The term “contested” convention used when more than one ballot is required is misleading. It is the logical outcome under certain situations, such as this year when there are multiple candidates. The parallel to the current year’s situation with the Republican presidential candidates and the nomination process is evident and instructive.
However, as if clueless to history, math and reality – the twin charlatans, “sensationalism” and “story line”, have plagued the multitude of journalists, TV and radio commentators and political analysts this year. The media failed to keep things in perspective. The obsession of the news reporters focusing on the alluring narrative or “story line” of Donald Trump’s atypical campaign and its result ran the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As it becomes the focus of attention an incessant narrative can lead, or more accurately mislead, the audience by omitting other information. Below is the history and current story of this year’s Republican candidate race put into true perspective. But this factual analysis is not intended to be about an evaluation of the candidate per se; it is about the nature and effect of the reporting.
Donald Trump in mid-June, 2015 announced his candidacy, slamming our lack of immigration control, promising to build a wall and brashly condemning the capabilities of the current leaders in the U.S. with respect to making economic and foreign policy agreements. He immediately garnered great support for “telling it like it is” on several high profile issues (immigration, trade, Iran). Fine. In a very crowded field of 17 candidates he surged to the front with about 21% of potential Republican voters supporting him*. Trump leading the field was a story. A real story!! A valid story. Not mentioned, and legitimately so at this point, was that 79% of the potential voters supported other candidates.
But after his initial issue based pyrotechnics and generic condemnation of leaders, Donald Trump began personally insulting and demeaning fellow candidates. Including their physical appearance. As his personal attacks continued Trump’s base stayed firm, even grew, but most people (including a majority of potential Republican voters) appeared dismayed at these personal attacks. (Just as they did later with Rubio). Trump’s belittling of Carly Fiorina’s appearance was reflected in the September polls. And after Trump’s persistent, (patently non-presidential), behavior in Sept. the reality was clear that the voting now represented not only a choice among the many candidates, but also a “Trump” and a “not Trump” vote. See representative month by month percentages below:
Trump – July: 21% Aug: 26% Sep: 23% Oct: 27% Nov: 29% Dec: 36% 2016 Jan: 36% Feb: 35% Not Trump – N/A N/A Sep: 77% Oct: 73% Nov: 71% Dec: 74% 2016 Jan: 64% Feb: 65% The disdain was also evident in national polls where Trump had a 60% unfavorable rating among voters, the largest un-favorability rating among any presidential candidate ever.
But in the media Trump’s poll leading position and insult ridden sensationalism dominated the Republican presidential race news. With three consequences; (1) Trump dominated the airways (with the other 12 or so candidates relegated to sharing any leftover time), (2) the “story line” that Trump was the poll leader, that he was the presumptive nominee, and that there was no way to stop him, continued ad infinitum, and (3) that Republicans and conservatives in general were being painted with a Trump’s position brush. The reality, and ultimate importance with respect to the nomination process, that about 2/3 of Republicans supported other candidates than Trump never seemed to register among the media and was rarely mentioned until the last debate.
As primary voting and caucusing began to take place “wins” – and not delegate distribution became the focus, and “sensationalist” narratives continued. The purveyors of news and commentary were focused on: (1) continuing their (non-mathematically supportable) narrative of predicting / declaring the early leader (Trump) as the eventual nominee, (2) postulating when and how some hypothetical “establishment” force would step in and forestall Trump’s “rightful” victory, (the non-descript term “establishment” was being used in nearly every sentence by the political analysts.), and (3) predicting chaos at the convention. From personal “grass root” experience, I can report that at my Colorado precinct caucus (made up of neighbors, the majority of whom had never been to a caucus) everyone voted in our straw poll for either Ben Carson or Macro Rubio. This is a micro-anecdotal experience but it supports my contention that the sentiment discussed above is a “common conservative” sentiment not an “establishment” imposed sentiment. In fact, it has been stated by the Republican Party leadership that no untoward attempt to influence the nomination outcome would take place and further it is recognized by nearly everyone that any such attempt would be counterproductive.
The news reporters and analysts should be explaining and educating the populous on how an actual, legitimate and necessary nomination process is intended to work when there are several candidates with delegates and none with a majority. This year’s nomination contest is unique and will require patience and understanding to be resolved. Eventually the news reporters will catch on that like Seward’s 41% of the delegates in the year of Lincoln’s nomination, that 43% of delegates (Trump’s current (March 8, 2016) percentage) is not a majority and is not a dominate lead over the 34% that Cruz now holds. Further the Convention has a rules committee made up of one man and one woman from each state delegation (plus 12 other members). Any proposed nomination procedure rule changes must be made before the convention starts and must be approved at the start by the convention delegates. Changes may need to be made due to the unique character of this race. Currently Rule 40 (made in 2012) requires that only candidates with the majority of delegates in 8 states can be placed in nomination. Because of the number of candidates and the split in support, right now no candidate has the majority of delegates in any state. So to recognize reality and also to give the delegates the chance to select who they think would ultimately be the best for the party, that rule is likely to be changed. Each state has its own rules about when their delegates, can vote for any candidate after the first ballot.
Objective, reality based reporting with respect to the nomination process has been lacking. News reporters, commentators and analysts have been caught up in a very unusual phenomenon and “pushed” a story line” that early on lost perspective. Not only can a lack of proper perspective have the potential to unduly influence the outcome by excessive media attention to a single narrative, it also can build false expectations. At the last debate, all the candidates (who all must indeed recognize the likelihood of a multi-ballot convention) selflessly and wisely pledged to support whoever the nominee will be. It is my hope that the media can put out enough clear and unbiased education to allow people to understand and accept the process that will take place. There is still time to do that. The hand writing of the need for that is on the wall. Maybe even tonight they will start to figure it out.
Thanks for reading this — Larry Von Thun
*The percentages given are taken from polls, and while poll numbers are recognized as variable and inaccurate, for the purposes of this analysis that is not important because it was polls on which the reporting being discussed was based.