How Not to Cover the 2016 Race

What reporters see as momentous change is business as usual.

We're a long way from the finish line.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Coverage of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition summit this past weekend -- in which Republican presidential candidates tried to impress a crowd composed mostly of evangelical-Christian Republicans -- is a great example of how political reporting can go wrong.

That's not because the reporters were incompetent, or even inaccurate. They weren't. But they do have a bias toward novelty, toward reporting that change is taking place, even when the evidence for such change is thin. They don't always check their impressions against historical data. And they have trouble capturing the dynamics of a multi-candidate field, because it's inherently hard to do.

Thus we get reports explaining that in Iowa, site of the first contest of the 2016 presidential race, everything has changed. This time, the story goes, evangelical Republicans are splitting their support among several candidates rather than voting as a bloc.

That story is wrong, but it illuminates larger problems with campaign reporting in an interesting way. Here's how the Wall Street Journal's Patrick O'Connor puts it:

An unusually large field of Republican presidential contenders is trying to win the support of evangelical primary voters, worrying many social conservatives that their influence will be diluted in a way that boosts more-centrist candidates. The crowd of contenders angling for evangelical votes muddies the prospects for a repeat of the two latest Republican primary campaigns, in which Christian conservatives helped catapult dark-horse candidates into the top tier of the field by delivering victories in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The New York Times, Politico and National Review have offered variations on this theme.

But there's nothing new in evangelicals being split. They usually show distinctive voting patterns in primaries and caucuses but rarely display unity. Republican candidates have won in Iowa by appealing to them disproportionately, not by winning overwhelming majorities among them. The winning candidates didn’t even get majorities among evangelicals in the last two contests.

In 2012, evangelicals were so split that former Senator Rick Santorum won a plurality of them in the Iowa caucuses with only 32 percent of their vote. Non-evangelicals, a minority among Republican caucus-goers, were actually slightly more bloc-like, giving former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney 38 percent of their vote. The result was that Santorum barely beat Romney.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee -- a Southern Baptist minister who aggressively courted religious voters -- was more successful than Santorum in winning evangelicals when he ran in 2008, but even then a majority of them picked someone else. Huckabee won 46 percent of evangelicals, but four other candidates scored in the double digits among them.

It seems highly likely, then, that evangelicals in Iowa will split their vote among several candidates in 2016. That's not because something has changed among them, but because that's what they usually do. A number of reporters say they detect a new focus on fiscal issues among Iowa Republicans. But most Iowa caucus-goers voted for candidates who stressed fiscal issues last time: Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich got a combined 59 percent of the vote.

The caucus winner in 2016 could well follow the pattern of the last two contests: It could be another candidate who places great emphasis on social issues and methodically appeals to religious voters. That's because evangelicals don't have to vote as a bloc for that type of candidate to win. They just need to give him a plurality.

An excellent reporter who goes out to Iowa might be able to say, honestly and accurately, that most of the evangelical Republicans he met there were thinking first and foremost about economic issues, not social ones, and that they were split five ways -- and the eventual result could still be a win for Huckabee.

The dynamics of any presidential contest are complicated and often resistant to the narratives reporters and pundits wish to impose on them. The data usually show a more complex and ambiguous picture of voter behavior than you might expect. And sometimes what seems like a momentous change is actually just business as usual.

Remember that when reading reports from Iowa -- and everywhere else along the campaign trail -- in the months ahead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.