Avoid the Fun-House Mirror Effect – And Vote
It is widely reported that sliced bread was invented there. It is listed in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not to be home to the most crooked street in the world (Snake Alley). It is the 30th largest state by population and is 91 percent white (reportedly the fourth whitest state) and 50.5 percent female. It is Iowa.
Its early season campaign running buddy is reported to be the home of the highest wind ever observed firsthand by man (231 mph) and was the first colony to declare independence from England. It is the 10th least populous state, is 93.9 percent white (reportedly the second whitest state) and 50.7 percent female. It is New Hampshire.
By contrast, the U.S. is the third-most populous country in the world, is 60.4 percent white (non-Hispanic), 18.3 percent Latinx, 13.4 percent African American and 50.8 percent female. Iowa and New Hampshire do not reflect, literally, the face of America but they play a disproportionately large role in picking our presidents. Does this make sense? Do they accurately reflect what is on the minds of voting Americans?
Iowa’s caucus this election cycle was so badly run that after 12 days, there was still no definitive winner. The state chair of the Democratic Party resigned. Even comedian Steve Martin took a shot at Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status at the Oscars. Poorly run and not being a real reflection of the Democratic voting population is not a good look.
Is New Hampshire any better? Although it held a primary, not caucuses, how representative was that result? Bernie Sanders won the contest, with Pete Buttigieg a close second and Amy Klobuchar a surprising third. But none of them got more than 27 percent of the vote there or in Iowa.
It is reported that Sanders’ base, 18-29-year-old voters, turned out at a five percent lower rate than in 2016. And many Democrats outside of Iowa and New Hampshire are convinced that Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, cannot beat Donald Trump. Republicans are said to be frothing at the mouth over that possible matchup. As for others, Trump loyalist Rush Limbaugh proclaims that Trump will “have fun” talking about Buttigieg’s sexual orientation during the general election. Still others are fearful of having another woman run against Trump in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
Is it time for something new?
Many Democrats argue that it is time to move away from caucuses. They can be a logistical nightmare, and attract the most hardcore partisan voters. Unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in Colorado who can also vote in our primary, often find them unappealing and too partisan by their very nature. That is why they are unaffiliated to begin with.
However, campaigns low on money like caucuses as a place to recruit and develop volunteers to build a ground organization. (Colorado holds both caucuses and primaries – but not for presidential nominees. Our state’s presidential primary is on “Super Tuesday,” March 3.)
Many also argue that two of the least populous and least diverse states unfairly set the tone and agenda for a result that is certain to be changed by coming elections and caucuses, while inflicting damage with a lasting impact on the campaign cycle. A candidate has to overcome the perception of having “lost” an early primary or caucus, while pushing a positive message and keeping contributions and volunteers coming in after losing earlier contests.
The net effect is that candidates who might be more viable nationally are driven out early as a result of their inability to appeal to these unrepresentative states and their voters. See: Michael Bennet; Kamala Harris; Julian Castro; John Hickenlooper; Andrew Yang; Cory Booker and others. Some of them – Kamala Harris being mentioned most often – now wish they would have stayed in the race a while longer.
“Electability” is often heralded as the true benchmark of who should be the nominee. That often translates into money. Tom Steyer spent heavily in Iowa ($16.4 million in ads, 0 percent of the vote, 0 delegates) and New Hampshire ($19.8 million in ads, 4 percent of the vote, 0 delegates) – obviously with little to show for his efforts.
As we know, Mike Bloomberg is spending a large amount of his considerable fortune buying his way into relevance. He has secured endorsements in communities of color – from grassroots players to top elected officials. Fears about and heated debate over the former New York mayor’s stop-and-frisk policies of the past and prior treatment of women notwithstanding, there are Democratic fears that the current pool will not produce a candidate who can defeat Trump.
His performance was disastrous in his first debate in Nevada, but Bloomberg is looking more and more like a viable – and dare I say best – option to beat Trump. And his willingness to go toe-to-toe with Trump on Twitter, calling him a “carnival barking clown” and that his friends secretly laugh at him has many Democrats energized. They may just be impressed that Bloomberg (or his team) can tweet effectively. More on tweeting in a moment.
A very busy 6 percent
So, what is really happening? What really reflects how voters think? Why are so many of our data points of information distorted or unreliable? How does this advance or hinder civic discourse? How does it pervert the political process?
One recent media outlet has reported that reliance on social media – Twitter and Instagram – is both misplaced and serves to heighten the distortion. While Trump blasts everyone and everything on Twitter, and Bloomberg has begun to oblige him with responses, recent reports say that only 11 percent of New Hampshire Democratic voters regularly used Twitter as a news source.
A recent Pew Research Center report puts this into better perspective. The report found only 22 percent of U.S. adults say they use Twitter. Of that number, only 31 percent tweet on politics. More importantly, 73 percent of the tweets regarding national political matters are generated by only 6 percent of the adult American population with public accounts on Twitter.
This very busy 6 percent – representing 1.32 percent of the entire adult U.S. population – is more polarized and extreme than most Americans. In the study, 55 percent of these “super-tweeters” self-reported themselves as either far right or far left. They are informed and they follow the news – but their minds are made up and their mission is to convince others to their point of view. Sometimes anonymously and often in extraordinary negative ways.
Other sources report that the political commentary on Twitter was found to be more focused on racial issues and foreign policy – emotional flashpoints for voters – rather than the economy, which is generally the topic of the non-Twitter crowd. These are also the emotional issues that attracted Russian involvement in the 2016 election. And speaking of, the Russians are at it again, interfering in our elections to aid their buddy Donald Trump. This news was recently shared with the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13, and reported by the New York Times.
“One pervasive problem of this campaign cycle is the fun-house mirror effect of Twitter on the minds of political reporters, commentators and insiders,” said Third Way co-founder Matt Bennett, who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House.
The Washington Post shared this insight: “So many media and political elites, including operatives on all the leading presidential campaigns, obsess over what’s on Twitter, even if they try, or pretend, to ignore it. This, in turn, can indirectly influence both messaging from candidates and coverage decisions from editors. That creates an echo, or a feedback loop, that shapes public perceptions and sometimes distorts reality.”
Will social media continue to distort reality? Yes. Will we get a course correction? Maybe, and here’s how.
Avoid the echo chamber
It was the fastest growing state in the decade of 2000-2010 and is currently 32nd in population. It is the driest state in the nation, with an average annual rainfall of seven inches a year. It is 66.2 percent white, 10.1 percent African-American and 8.9 percent Latinx. Roughly 19 percent of its residents were born outside of the United States. It is 49.5 percent female.
It is Nevada and its caucuses were held on Feb. 22.
Here is another: This is one of the most popular tourist states in the country, drawing visitors that exceed more than three times its actual population. It was the first state to secede from the Union going into the Civil War. And after, was the first state with a majority African-American congress. It is the 23rd largest state by population and is 66.2 percent white, 27.9 percent African-American and 9.6 percent Latinx. It is 51.4 percent female. It is South Carolina and its primary was Feb. 29.
As Tom Steyer has noted, the winners of Nevada and South Carolina can lay claim to being more legitimate contenders for the nomination, given the very different demographics of these states and the widely held belief that they really are more representative of voters’ wishes. This column was written before the outcome of these elections was known. But if Sanders, Buttigieg or Klobuchar won one or both of these contests, the conversation changes and we’ll see more candidates drop out. It they don’t win either of them, it will be a hot mess.
“Super Tuesday” is March 3, including primary elections in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Virginia. But, 38 percent of Democratic delegates will have been selected by then. That leads to the possibility that no candidate gets a first-ballot nomination at the Democratic National Convention on July 13 in Milwaukee, Wisc. Did I mention hot mess?
I believe, the national pundits believe, and the candidates all believe that voting is the best course correction. Stay off of Twitter and Instagram and go listen to as many candidates as you can, and vote. They are all coming through Colorado so this is your chance to see them up close. It is hard to spin you off of your real life’s experience. Hopefully, our shared course correction comes into focus on March 4.
While you’re considering your choice, reflect on your own experience. I’ll bet it resembles mine. Most of what I hear about from Twitter and Instagram is not from following any one person or people, it is from the mainstream news media reporting on and spreading the tweets. They become the echo chamber.
Talk to your neighbors. Their reality is probably more like yours, and more accurate than any social media post. Vote.
Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney in Denver. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003. A former candidate for mayor of Denver, Tate’s opinion column returned to these pages in December. He and his wife Paulette live in Park Hill.