Over the last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Joe Biden and Al Gore were two of the leading candidates in the 2016 presidential race—charismatic, principled leaders that voters wanted, nah, demanded, lead our nation for the next eight years.
After all, political reporters swooned last week at the news that Al Gore might make another run for the presidency. Reuters chased the BuzzFeed scoop, as did ABC News, the Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets. But severalaccounts quickly downplayed such a possibility, with a Gore spokeswoman saying there was “no truth” to it. The disappointment of reporters was palpable, not because the press likes Gore—they actually despise him with a passion—but because he is a known quantity on the campaign trail who, when milked, produces excellent copy.
The Gore episode (and the Biden one, which we’ll get to in a minute) inadvertently illustrated the press corps’ deepest prejudice. It’s not for liberals or conservatives—or even for declared candidates. What reporters lust for are contenders capable of generating usable story material, and these contenders are almost always the candidates who enjoy high voter recognition, often for a previous run for the presidency. Mitt Romney likewise moved the press corps from exhilaration to despondency in January when he flirted with a third run for the White House. The press wasn’t hankering for a Romney campaign any more than it was hankering for a Gore campaign. But their political longevity has produced giant flumes of coverage over the years, and that coverage can be captured and reused by reporters to write new stories. Veterans of previous Gore and Romney campaign are the greatest beneficiaries whenever rumor or scuttlebutt has it that either intends another run: a spin of the Rolodex, a few phone calls, and voilà, the reporter’s old notes are refreshed and a new news story is created.
The press corps’ preference for thoroughbreds—have not Mitt Romney’s presidential musings gotten more coverage this year than those of announced candidate George Pataki?—helps explain the disdain reporters have long-shot candidates. By necessity, presidential campaign coverage this far out from the general election must be of the horserace variety. The leaders must be handicapped only if to cull the field to a manageable size. No newspaper, magazine, TV network or Web site has the resources to cover in depth every declared candidate. A reporter could, I suppose, write a series of compelling story about James Webb or George Pataki if he put his mind to it. But who would read it? Few journalists are willing to write about the presidential candidates who can’t possibly win unless it’s to point out that the candidates can’t possibly win and that their every gesticulation is futile. Still fewer outlets are willing to run such coverage.
The ideal candidate in the press corps’ view is a veteran candidate who has kept his (or her) place high in the news since his last campaign. For Campaign 2016, the ideal candidate is Hillary Clinton, a previous loser in the presidential derbies who is always giving reporters new material to write about. Better to write in depth about one controversial Clinton email, the political reporter knows, than the entire policy platform of a Lincoln Chafee.
This ideal-candidate formula isn’t perfect. Long-shots sometimes have a way of becoming ideal candidates, even if they haven’t run before and sun-bathed in the news. During this campaign cycle, Bernie Sanders has turned the formula inside out. He’s neither run before nor been much of a newsmaker outside of his progressive mini-circles. The press has begrudgingly elevated his status from long-shot to contender because of his success in the polls and his skill at drawing crowds. Another outlier, Donald Trump, whom the press keeps predicting will pop and crash, has earned his way to contender status by virtue of his polling numbers. Given its druthers, the press would like to snub him and his gauche ways because there seems no way the current system could elect him president. But the press has proved powerless to suppress him. As with Sanders, the press must cover Trump because he has achieved notoriety that can’t be ignored.