Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How should the media cover the current state of the Republican contest?

Is the Republican presidential contest still a thing?  Should the media treat it as such?  There are competing incentives at work here.

Arizona and Utah voted yesterday.  Trump won the former, Cruz won the latter.  Since Arizona has more delegates, this extends Trump's lead.  And it is hardly a news story.  Part of that is the terrorist attack in Belgium.  But, part of it is the knowledge, finally setting in, that this thing is pretty much over.  Trump denialism can still be found in a few corners of the commentariat, but most people who don't have their heads someplace dark and special understand that Trump is nearly unstoppable.  Key word, "nearly."  And that's where competing incentives come in.

Diminished coverage of the campaign, based on the premise that Trump has it locked up, benefits Trump.  It is still mathematically possible for Trump to be held under 50% in the delegate count, at which point it is mathematically possible for the RNC to "pull a Humphrey" on Trump and give the nomination to someone who got fewer votes, but as I have explained before, that scenario is not just unlikely in statistical terms, it is unlikely in political terms, and it relies on the Republicans being willing to tear themselves apart, probably violently, and burning down my city this summer.  Let's check that "years without the river catching on fire" sign.  I'd prefer not to reset it.

However, if the media stop covering the campaign based on the premise that it is over, those mathematical possibilities become really impossible.  Treating Trump as inevitable makes him inevitable.  Trump's opponents, then, who include the entirety of the Republican "establishment," or whatever is left of it, need the media to pretend that this thing isn't over.  If Trump's nomination would be the disaster some foresee, then they need to do everything possible to stop Tony Clifton, I mean, Donald Trump from getting the nomination.

What about Hillary?  Most people think she benefits from a Trump nomination, so anything that helps Trump helps her, if that's true.  I will continue writing about how everyone might be underestimating Trump, but for now, suppose conventional wisdom is right.  She wants to get on with the general election, right?  Problem:  this can backfire because if Hillary starts focusing on Trump, she might actually hurt him.  Maybe she helps him by pretending that the contest is still going, saving her fire for when Trump clinches it.

And then there's the press.  Torn between the competing incentives of various players, and, oh yeah, reality.  How long should the media pretend that a basically-over contest is still happening?  With ISIS operating on European soil, and lots of other stuff happening around the world, should anyone besides political junkies like me still be obsessed with the ever-shrinking odds that somebody can nomination-block Trump?  But if the media don't play along (yes, that is grammatically correct), they are handing the nomination to Trump.  But it's already his, so...

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