By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Missing in action

I’m not one of those purists who believes all candidates, no matter how marginal, must be included in all media coverage. But it strikes me as pretty lame if you can’t find a way to wedge everyone into a chart explaining where they all stand on the issues.

So I was struck by a chart on pages 14 and 15 of today’s New York Times that excludes Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel and Republican Duncan Hunter. I can think of no reason why the Times’ editors would have left them out other than poll numbers so minuscule that they can’t be taken seriously. So let’s take a look.

First, the most recent national poll — a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey taken in mid-December — shows, on the Democratic side, Kucinich and Gravel with 1 percent each. That’s very low indeed, but not quite as low as the virtual zero scored by Chris Dodd. And, given that the margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent, those numbers are really no different from Bill Richardson’s 2 percent or Joe Biden’s 3 percent.

On the Republican side, Hunter scores a lowly 2 percent, just below Ron Paul’s 3 percent. Again, no real difference — a point that becomes even clearer if you look at Hunter’s and Paul’s numbers over time, which essentially show each bouncing around 1 percent to 3 percent.

What prompts the Times chart today, of course, are the Iowa caucuses, which will be held on Thursday. So do the Iowa polls show Kucinich, Gravel and Hunter lagging so badly behind everyone else that they uniquely deserve to be left out? Well, sort of, but not really.

According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll of likely Republican caucus-goers, also conducted in mid-December, Hunter scored just 1 percent, while the next-lowest candidate, John McCain, had 6 percent. (I’m excluding Tom Tancredo, who’s left the building.) So there’s at least an argument to be made for Hunter’s not making the cut. Among likely Democratic caucus-goers, though, no such rationale emerges. Kucinich and Dodd are tied at 1 percent each and, in previous polls, Kucinich did slightly better than Dodd. (Gravel was left off the most recent survey, although his Web site shows that he’s still doing campaign events.)

By leaving off Kucinich, Gravel and Hunter, the Times demonstrates a clear bias toward conventional thought. Among the Democrats, Dodd has performed as poorly as anyone, yet he’s included — and he has been included in every debate, unlike Kucinich and Gravel. The difference is that Dodd is a mainstream liberal and a senator, well-liked by the media and a proven provider of good quotes.

Kucinich, on the other hand, is a radical congressman with a prickly personality. He’s got some interesting ideas, but when does that ever have anything to do with it? Gravel, admittedly, is a loose cannon. But if you’re going to start excluding candidates from issues charts, debates and the like, then Dodd, and even Richardson and Biden, are no more serious about winning the nomination than Kucinich or Gravel are at this point.

It’s at least somewhat clearer among the Republicans. Paul has raised a ton of money and is the darling of Internet libertarians. Although he’s not going to win the nomination or the presidency, he may run as an independent, which would be one of the big political stories of the year. Given that, Hunter really is the least plausible Republican, the longest of longshots. But he’s a congressman and he’s just one guy. Why leave him out?

The Des Moines Register has an issues chart online as well, and everyone is included. Not that that proves anything — the Times’ online issues chart also includes everyone, even candidates who’ve dropped out. (Locally, the Boston Globe has a similar feature online.)

This was the Times’ last chance before the voting begins to tell readers of the print edition — and there may be more than a few Sunday subscribers in Iowa — where all the candidates who are still running stand on a variety of issues. Yes, it’s graphically pleasing to make it appear that there are six Republicans and six Democrats running; the column widths are easy on the eye. But it’s not true.

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  1. Larz

    You hit a hot button here. I’m sure you know how hard it is to get a complete list of all the presidential candidates. I’ve come up with 54, but I’m sure there are more.It really gets my goat that the money thing is such a big part of campaign that no candidate can be taken seriously unless he has millions upon millions of dollars. And who are the gatekeepers? MSM, not that there’s any conflict of interest. Political campaigns have become a lucrative part of broadcasting owners’ income, and their news divisions get to make the call of who will and will not get coverage. Oh, sure there’s a “firewall”.Minority candidates deserve a fair shake.–Larz

  2. Tony

    Great piece! I’m shocked at how much of the press has handled this race. It gets even deeper than just six vs. six NYT piece. Much of the big media has been covering the Dem side as a two-person race while still covering the GOP as a five-way – even though Giuliani has been sinking like a lead pipe into the East River!

  3. Jon Garfunkel

    Dan– They chose six, because six fit. I am not fully familiar with Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice theory, but as I understand it, as the number of choices increases, the ability of the typical person to make an informed decision decreases. So very few people have made a compelling case for a “long tail” of Presidential politics. I believe most of the debate watchers (journalists, bloggers, readers) have called for a winnowing of the field.(I suppose you might be able to produce evidence that the NYT listed 7 choices in 2004, but, of course, the paper was wider then.)Obviously, there is a pre-election “caucus” which is largely the function of the media. But, of course, someone like Ron Paul is able to attract an organic following on the net, as Dean did before him.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Jon: Too many candidates can definitely lead to poor decision-making on the part of voters, but who gets to winnow the field? Since polling data are one of the few objective measurements we have, I think giving the nod to Dodd over Kucinich is especially problematic.I don’t like these gang debates, but why not have a series of randomly chosen candidates debating in twos or threes? Then the candidates would actually have a chance to discuss their stands at length.

  5. Jon Garfunkel

    re: “I think giving the nod to Dodd over Kucinich is especially problematic.”When choosing, it would seem at least metaphorically fitting to consult Buridan’s ass. In this paradox, donkey starved because it would not choose between two equally sized bales of hay. So, rather than starve, the Times went with Dodd.Now I would grant that Kucinich distinguishes his positions better than most of the Democratic field (just as Ron Paul does in the GOP.)Short of engaging the Public Editor in some more navel-gazing, I suppose the simple answer is that they regard that, by nature of it being a repeat candidacy of an also-ran last time (even one who finished 4th in the final tally last go-around), it is a mere vanity run. Just a thought.Now, putting our thinking caps, what sort of media magic could we dream up here to improve this in the future? The 10Questions format is on the right track here; the web geeks at the campaigns ought to come up with an XML format which each campaign would use to register fifty-words-or-less-statement on each issue. These could well be hyperlinked, even using fifty hyperlinks (naturally to video as well); the purpose of 50 words would be enable easy aggregation. Use some flash animation to bring the data together, it would be more fun and useful to follow along than the print version.

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