Friday, December 21, 2007
The Matrix: Room Eight's Jerry Skurnick has suggested that the electorate is splitting into two diverging parts--people who follow politics and people who don't--with the people who follow politics much better informed than they were before (thanks to cable, web, etc.) and the people who don't follow politics less well informed (they used to get at least some information from Walter Cronkite). That certainly rings true to me. And it may, as Skurnick claims, explain some of the new volatility in polling--e.g., when the uninformed majority suddenly discovers, say, that Rudy Giuliani has been married three times.
But there's a second way to divide the electorate that asks how the voters inform themselves. Do they rely on the traditional Mainstream Media (MSM), or do they get their political information from the Web, from cable news, from the tabloids, etc. This division may have once seemed unimportant, but it doesn't anymore--its seriousness is suggested by the MSM's impressive resistance to stories bubbling up from the blogs and the tabs that don't meet MSM standards (putting aside whether you regard those standards as high or merely idiosyncratic). "Rielle Hunter"--the woman whom the National Enquirer alleges was John Edwards' mistress--was the top-searched name on the MSN site at one point Thursday, I'm told. Meanwhile, in the traditional mainstream press, 'Rielle Hunter" was mentioned only ... well, zero times.
Of the two ways to divide the electorate, the second is arguably more important. After all, even those who don't follow politics, will eventually inform themselves before the election.** But if the MSM/Web barrier remains as robust as it's been, those who inform themselves from the MSM will find out something different, when they finally tune in, than those who go to the Web and learn both the news and what might be called the "undernews." *** If you're thinking of voting as a Democrat in Iowa or New Hampshire, you might watch NBC and never know about this messy Rielle Hunter business. Or you might read DailyKos know the whole allegation plus the arguments against it plus seven theories about how it came to light. That knowledge might cause voters to vote against Edwards or to vote for him--but either way first they have to find out.
Likewise, TNR's Noam Scheiber suggests that the egghead sector ( "urban, college-educated liberals") of the Democratic party--which used to be less partisan and combative than the blue-collar/labor sector--is now more partisan and combative, because its eggy heads are wrapped up in Kos and other anti-Bush sites, where they absorb the latest undernews about the machinations of Karl Rove and Tom DeLay. Scheiber argues this is a good development for Obama, who surprisingly doesn't have to become more partisan then he actually is in order to win over non-egghead (labor) Dems.
The 2008 campaign will be a test of the relative strength of these various differently-informed electorates. Of those who follow politics (Skurnick's first group) how many follow the "undernews" and how many merely watch Brian Williams? Of those who don't follow politics (Skurnick's second group) how many bone up in the end by madly googling the candidates, and how many just read the editorial endorsements in their local papers? The non-MSM Enquirer will be in the checkout aisles all over Iowa, but will it have an impact?
At the moment it looks as if Edwards has the most at stake in this great experiment, but others will have a stake soon enough. . Much of the anti-"amnesty" immigration movement has been consigned to the Undernews simply because the MSM consensus in favor of some kind of "comprehensive" legalization has been so strong. Why even cover those nativist kooks? That's no longer true, but there may be other issues the MSM doesn't cover, including various partisan conspiracy theories and maybe entire candidacies (e.g. Ron Paul).
My guess is that Skurnick's largest group--those who don't normally follow politics--will by and large continue in 2008 to get their "free media" from the conventional press. That means they won't, by and large, learn the undernews. The MSM will still dominate this election. But not the next one.
**--You might think there would only be three groups: Non-Followers, people who follow through the MSM, and people who follow through non-MSM. But the non-followers who actually vote will have to start following some time, at which point they will also fall into two groups: either relying on the MSM or going beyond it. It's a four-box matrix--very exciting--although the box of "those who don't follow politics but then learn from blogs" presumably doesn't contain many voters.