Since recent Republican presidents, nominees and candidates are shunning the stage, the Trump campaign has added athletes, an astronaut, family members and other nontraditional speakers to the Republican National Convention that begins Monday in Cleveland.
And yet, ratings likely will rise.
But not necessarily due to the convention’s unconventional speakers. It’s rather because voters, and thus viewers, are riveted to the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — even if they’re also displeased with both candidates.
Two new Pew Research Center polls reflect this contradiction. Voter satisfaction with the presidential candidates has crashed to its lowest point in over two decades, Pew reports. Only 43 percent of Democrats and 40 percent of Republicans are “very/fairly satisfied with the presidential candidates.”
Comparatively, just four short years ago when voters chose between President Obama and Mitt Romney, 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans were “very/fairly satisfied.”
Yet dissatisfaction doesn’t mean disinterest. In fact, an inverse relationship reflects campaign 2016. Pew reports that 80 percent of registered voters have “thought about the election quite a lot” — the highest since at least 1992 — while only 15 percent said they had thought about campaign 2016 “only a little.”
This contemplation brings complications, however: 59 percent told Pew this week that they “are worn out by so much coverage.” (And the 39 percent who “like seeing a lot of coverage” are in luck, given the next fortnight’s focus on Republicans in Cleveland and Democrats in Philadelphia.)
As for those with election fatigue, chalk it up in part to an over-focus on “candidates’ comments” (44 percent said “too much” coverage, while 15 percent said “too little”), as well as “candidates’ personal lives” (43 percent too much/19 percent too little) and “which candidate is leading” (37 percent too much/13 percent too little).
Conversely, for what really counts — that is, experience and actual issues — voters say they’re void of comprehensive coverage: 45 percent said there was “too little” coverage on “candidates’ experience” (15 percent said “too much”), while 55 percent said there was “too little” coverage on “candidates’ issues stands.” (Strikingly, 13 percent said “too much.”)
This horse-race coverage may just be hitting its stride. The consecutive conventions will amplify the competition even further. And so, too, will polls pointing to a tightening, if not tied, race (40 percent for each candidate, according to Thursday’s New York Times/CBS News poll).
Voters vexed by horse-race coverage are not alone. An analysis of eight major news organizations released this week by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy states that during the caucus and primary season, such coverage was “to the detriment of candidates and voters alike.” The “competitive game” got 56 percent of the coverage, and the “campaign process” received about one third during the period. That left just 11 percent for “substantive concerns.” That in itself is a substantive concern, considering the profound issues the next president faces.
One of the reasons that next president may be Trump is the portion of press coverage he received, which was more than any Republican rival during every week of the campaign. (And the Republican race itself garnered 63 percent of total coverage during the primaries and caucuses, compared with 37 percent for the Democrats).
And despite Trump’s blunt criticism of individual reporters and institutional news organizations, he actually fared relatively well when considering coverage tone, according to the Harvard analysis. Forty-nine percent of his coverage had a positive tone, compared with 51 percent negative. And the two candidates who reportedly were media favorites? Marco Rubio had 44 percent positive and 56 percent negative, while John Kasich had the worst ratio of the four durable GOP presidential prospects, with 41 percent positive and 59 percent negative.
Coverage of Clinton was tough, too: 47 percent positive and 53 percent negative, about the opposite of her rival Bernie Sanders (54 percent positive/46 percent negative).
If and how the tone and tenor of coverage changes during the next two weeks could further frame the race as it intensifies. Trump suspended his planned announcement of his vice presidential pick due to the terrorist tragedy in Nice, France. But he later confirmed that it is indeed Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who looks to be more prepared than a previous Hoosier, Dan Quayle. Clinton likely will make a cautious choice, too.
Which means that the race is likely to be a referendum on the two polarizing, unpopular candidates. But it should be a referendum on issues, too. So the country needs the coverage to transcend these outsized personalities in order to better examine the extraordinary challenges either would face over four (or eight) years.
Voters seem to share this vibe, too, according to Pew: Asked “when it comes to making progress on important issues facing the country,” a recent record high of 74 percent say “it really matters who wins the election,” compared with a recent record low of 22 percent who said “things will be pretty much the same no matter who wins.”
Let’s hope the candidates — and the news media — reflect the voters’ already correct sense of this election’s gravity.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.