The catch goes to Richard Skinner for his reaction to a very good story by CNN's Peter Hamby (via Nyhan) on mixed feelings about Hillary Clinton's candidacy among Iowa Democratic activists. Richard noted a key point:
@BrendanNyhan @PeterHambyCNN a lot of these people have professional/personal stake in having a competitive caucus.
Exactly right. Campaign professionals (not to mention key television and radio stations) need, well, a campaign. At a practical level, not only are there millions of dollars at stake (while the effect on a state isn't huge, it's still something), careers can be made by picking the right horse.
You know who else has a professional/personal stake in a competitive Iowa race, followed by a competitive campaign? Yup: the news media. All corners of it, really. Even the Republican-aligned press, both because they'll want the opportunity to take shots at Clinton (or other viable Democratic candidates), and because they'll enjoy a distraction from the Republican nomination battle if it turns ugly or embarrassing. Of course, the Democratic partisan press will want the Republican fight to be lively for the same reasons.
One important caveat to Hamby's excellent "invisible primary" story: It's important to cover the early states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. But a lot of important invisible primary activity happens at the national level. Even though local activists and other party actors in early states may talk a good game about their political independence, at the end of the day a candidate who fails to pick up national support is unlikely to have much of a chance in an early state (and if a candidate does break out in an early state, his or her success is much less likely to continue beyond that state).
Still, what happens in those states can matter, so it's good to have solid on-the-ground reporting. It informs not only speculation about who will win, but also a more qualitative sense of what party actors are thinking right now. Mix that reporting with a good appreciation of the incentives involved for parties, candidates, and the press, and that'll get most of the way towards understanding what's happening.
And: Nice Catch!
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Jonathan Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org