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What the Press Owes Bernie Sanders

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Bernie Sanders kicked off his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on Tuesday, raising a tricky question: How should the media cover candidates who don’t have a realistic chance at winning?

Ryan Cooper, the national correspondent for The Week, and Dylan Byers of Politico answer it by complaining the press hasn’t treated Sanders fairly. (Columbia Journalism Review started this discussion last week.)

But they are wrong because they are applying the wrong criteria -- mainly polling results -- for evaluating candidates. Instead, reporters can ask: Have similar candidates won a nomination in the modern era?  (By "modern," I mean after the electoral reforms were put in place for the 1972 presidential cycle.) Have candidates similar to Sanders come close to getting a nomination?

Nope. No self-described socialist has come anywhere close to a Democratic nomination. Nor has the Democratic Party chosen anyone who doesn't consider himself a member of the Democratic Party in the first place.

We don’t have to wait until the primaries and caucuses to know Sanders has no realistic path to the nomination. It isn’t up for grabs the way it is on the Republican side. No candidate has ever put together as impressive a lineup of endorsements from party leaders this early as Hillary Clinton has this year, and such endorsements (unlike early polling results) are excellent predictors of nomination results.  

This doesn't mean reporters will present a full picture of the nomination contest if they ignore Sanders and other long shots.  As a protest candidate, Sanders has solid credentials for being taken seriously. He's a sitting U.S. senator. He's articulating his differences with his party (and the Republicans) on many domestic and international issues. And he's doing enough of what real candidates do (as opposed to, say, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who hasn't done much campaigning at all after announcing his Democratic candidacy some time ago).

Sanders is part of the story of the campaign, in the same way Ron Paul was a serious part of the 2012 and 2008 fights for the Republican nomination despite having no realistic chance of winning. Protest candidates who have real constituencies are part of how parties define themselves during nomination contests.  

It's wrong to say the press should cover every candidate equally. It has constraints, both in resources (covering candidates is expensive!) and reader interest. Horse-race coverage, after all, is driven in large part by readers who want to know which candidate is going to win or at least who has a good shot at winning. Given how many candidates have a realistic chance on the Republican side and the presence of a few protest candidates in that race as well (Rick Santorum, a bit of both, is declaring his bid today), journalists have complex calculations to make. 

So, no, the media doesn't owe the candidates (as Politico would have it) a "fair shake." Reporters owe their readers and viewers the facts as they know them. And part of telling the truth (as they understand it) is telling their audience whether a presidential candidate is a plausible nominee or not. Pretending that Sanders is more than a protest candidate would be wrong.

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

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net