August 16, 2016

How to Rig an Election: The 2016 Democratic Primary

Bernie Sanders in the South Bronx March 31st 2016 by Michael Vadon

Let's get this out of the way from the start. "Rigging" an election is going to mean different things to different people. To some, it will be narrowly defined to refer only stealing an election in the sense that the outcome is predetermined because one candidate wins regardless of the vote. Under this definition, I'd be unlikely to claim that any of the elections I am going to discuss in this series were (or will be) rigged. Others are fine with a broader definition where "rigging" could probably be replaced with something like "unduly influencing." But since everybody wants to influence elections, it can become tricky to determine precisely where efforts to influence an election cross the line.

I am personally inclined to draw that line in such a way that blatant media bias that favors one of more candidate over others should probably be construed as enough of an undue influence to count as "rigging." And this brings me to the main reason I am writing this series of posts:
I believe that the corporate-owned news media in the U.S., and the cable news punditocracy in particular, does us all a grave disservice in how they cover presidential candidates from the moment they announce their candidacies through to the general election. Moreover, I believe that they exert an undue influence on our elections, essentially stacking the deck in favor of some candidates and to the detriment of others. In essence, I believe that they are undermining our democratic process and that reforms are needed to end this corrosive influence if we want to continue to believe that we have free elections.
In this post, I'll consider the 2016 Democratic primary.

Take yourself all the way back to the very beginning of the contest. You may recall that many in our news media were referring to Hillary Clinton as "the presumptive nominee" as early as last summer. I saw this on CNN, MSNBC, and PBS; I read it in countless reputable news sources online. You may also recall that some of these same people in the media were excitedly pushing "the first female president" narrative before we knew who else was running. As early as last summer, it seemed as though much of our news media had already selected the Democratic nominee.

So what? Clinton had a massive advantage over almost anyone who could have run against her in the form of name recognition, political experience, and the experience of running in 2008. Wasn't the reporting at the time merely reflecting this advantage? I can see the merit in that argument, but I'd like to suggest that something more than this was happening even if much of it was unintentional.

What impact do you suppose statements about Clinton being "inevitable," the "front-runner," or "the presumptive nominee" had on the audience at the time? Clinton started to seem inevitable even before we knew who might emerge to run against her. Now think back to the first couple months of the Democratic primary. Remember how much coverage Clinton received and how little coverage any of the other candidates received. Do you even remember Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, or Lawrence Lessig? They all withdrew before the primaries. And who could blame them? They received so little coverage from our news media that they had an uphill battle. And while he did make it all the way through the debates, Martin O'Malley did not fare much better. Most of the audience, myself included, had no idea who he was before seeing him on the debate stage.

Again, the cumulative impact of hearing about Clinton every day and rarely hearing about any of these other candidates was substantial. She became the most serious candidate, and the rest could be dismissed. She was the presumptive nominee, and that meant that none of the others needed to be taken seriously. They didn't stand a chance. Nobody cared about them; Clinton was the story.

Remember Bernie Sanders? Of course you do! But it takes some effort to think back to how our news media covered the early days of his campaign, when they bothered to cover it at all. You may remember that much of their sporadic coverage consisted of little more than commenting on how he was a "fringe candidate" who would never be taken seriously. "He's a socialist!" "He doesn't look presidential."

The news media has an important role in introducing the nation to each and every candidate. The manner in which our media introduced us to Sanders was to deride and dismiss him. "Look at his ill-fitting suit. Somebody should get that guy an iron and a comb." "I don't think America is ready for a socialist president." But mostly, they just ignored Sanders. He did not fit the narrative, and Clinton's coronation was already underway. She was, we were told repeatedly, going to be the first female president, after all.

What the Sanders campaign managed to do, against all odds, was to connect with large numbers of voters in a way that nobody in the news media saw coming. The time would come when it would no longer be possible to ignore him, but I suspect you remember how long it took much of the news media to get there and how much denial there was along the way. Reports started to emerge from individuals on social media of massive rallies for Sanders. We began to wonder aloud why none of this was being reported in our news media. When Sanders finally did begin to receive some coverage, attendance at his rallies increased, as did donations to his campaign. And to many Americans, he started to seem like a viable candidate in a way he had not previously.

Was the Democratic primary "rigged" for Clinton? I see no evidence that it was rigged in the narrow sense of the election being stolen. At least, I believe that Clinton received more votes than Sanders in the primary. Was the contest rigged in a different sense? Did our news media exert an undue influence on the election in a way that favored Clinton? For me, an intriguing question to ask would be the following:
Suppose that our mainstream news media had provided equal coverage of all candidates throughout the Democratic primary (i.e., for every 5 minutes spent on Clinton, every other candidate received 5 minutes) and the coverage was free from blatant bias (i.e., introducing us to the candidates in a fair and reasonable objective manner). Might the outcome have been different?
I think the outcome might have been different, and the process almost certainly would have been different. While I do not think we would have ended up with Chafee, Webb, Lessig, or O'Malley as our nominee, I do think that O'Malley would have done much better than he did had we had a suitable introduction to him and all the other candidates prior to the debates. And yes, I think that we might have ended up with Sanders as our nominee. Had he been given the same amount of coverage as Clinton, been taken seriously from the start, and not been as thoroughly disparaged as a fringe candidate by our news media, I think he would have seemed far more viable to voters ahead of the primaries. Given Clinton's high negative ratings, I believe this might have made a meaningful difference.

But here's the real kicker. Suppose the outcome didn't change at all. Imagine that we ended up with Clinton as the nominee in spite of the candidates being covered fairly from when they announced their candidacy through the convention. In this case, I think we'd all feel much better about the process. We might have even behaved better than we did.

Whether you want to characterize what our news media does as "rigging" or not, the notion that any one primary candidate receives massive coverage while others are barely mentioned strikes me as unfair, undemocratic, and corrosive to the political process. This is not how I think a news media should operate in a democratic society.

In Part II of this series, I plan to take a look at the 2016 Republican primary.