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What horse race?

If the mainstream media were ever in a position to orchestrate the horse race those days are over. The race is now controlled from below, by the various constituencies that coalesce around candidates.
/ Source: National Journal

According to the media, we're supposed to have learned all kinds of things from the rise of . One is "how unsettled the Republican contest is just a month before the Iowa caucuses" (USA Today). Another is that "Christian conservatives, who have had friction with Mormons," are "responding to his message that he is the true social conservative in the race" (New York Times). Also, "likability still matters" (a pollster quoted by The Washington Post).

These are decent insights, but they don't tell us anything about the media themselves. What I've taken away from the Huckabee phenomenon is that we should stop worrying so much about horse race journalism. I'm referring, of course, to the much bemoaned tendency of reporters to treat the campaign as a sporting event, obsessing over who's up and who's down -- especially who's up.

Horse race coverage lavishes attention on front-runners while basically ignoring those who aren't polling well. Thus, the complaint goes, it turns polls into self-fulfilling prophecies. The other rap on the horse race is that it crowds out serious reporting on the issues that really matter to Americans, reducing the campaign to a little buzz factory for insiders.

The horse race charge has been around for a long time, and it's rooted in something real. Generally speaking, journalists who cover politics really do love the game for its own sake. And they move in social and professional circles where the game is everything because it makes careers and pays salaries.

Back in the old 20th century, when we had only a handful of powerful news outlets, there was a persuasive argument that this was a problem. If there aren't many news sources, and the news arrives only a few times a day -- morning paper, evening newscast, etc. -- it's very easy for the horse race to become reality. Because the game of politics isn't the part that in the end really matters, this was worrisome.

In the past 15 years, as the number of news outlets has exploded, three crucial things have happened to make the horse race less of a problem. First, we have created a nation of political junkies. I'm not saying that everyone in America has become like those poll-fixated journalists. But digital technology has turned the political game into a national sporting event with an avid fan base. The current lineup of presidential candidates effectively has been running for years, and that long campaign has had an audience among millions of everyday Joes and Janes. The horse race isn't just for and about insiders; it's a populist sport all its own, NASCAR for the C-SPAN set.

The second change is a byproduct of the first. To meet the growing hunger for campaign news, there are more organized campaign events and, in particular, more debates than ever. In the ecology of political media, the debates serve several functions. They create new content, i.e., new policy statements, one-liners, showdowns, and other "moments" for the political media to chew on and digest. They change the state of play, moving candidates up and down in the polls. And because the debate questions are about the issues, they put real meat on the bones of the horse race. The debates in this campaign have been stunningly substantive -- every imaginable topic of real consequence has been covered, often more than once.

Thus, somewhat paradoxically, the horse race has undermined itself. The demand for more political "sport" has created more political substance.

Which brings me back to Huckabee. The final shift brought on by old and new media is the dilution of the old establishment media's power and influence. If the mainstream media were ever in a position to orchestrate the horse race -- and to some extent, they once were -- those days are over. The race is now controlled from below, by the various constituencies that coalesce -- or not -- around candidates as they emerge in the public consciousness through the kaleidoscope of digital media.

So Huckabee turns in some good debate performances, his reputation spreads among Christians, and voila : The old horse race gets thrown out and a new one begins. Journalists didn't lead Iowans, or anyone else, to the Huckaboom -- they just followed the crowd.