Election Rule #34: Process Gaffes Matter. Policy Gaffes Don’t.

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Last year, it was conventional wisdom that Republicans had a very good shot at gaining control of the Senate in this year’s midterm election. But then GOP candidates started to falter a bit in Kansas, South Dakota, and other swing states. Charles Pierce comments on how this has played out with Joni Ernst in Iowa and Cory Gardner in Colorado:

The meme looked a little weak and faltering. It was time to make it strong again. And then we saw one of those remarkable moments in which the keepers of Our National Dialogue moved to shore up their own endangered credibility, thereby reviving the meme. Instead of being a demonstration that Joni Ernst’s entire previous political career was built on fringe bushwah, her ability to “distance” herself from these positions was presented as a demonstration of how politically deft she is. Out in Colorado, Cory Gardner, who has spent every second of his time in politics as a proud anti-choice loon, is now ahead of incumbent Mark Udall at least in part because of the credit Gardner has accrued for shrewdly “softening” his long history of extremism. That this might be naked opportunism seems lost in the narrative somewhere. I don’t think it’s entirely out of line to believe that a lot of people in my business need the Senate to change hands in November to vindicate how smart they were in February.

Maybe. Or it might just be the usual preoccupation that political reporters have with process over substance. For example, Steve Benen notes today that Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes recently dodged “a straightforward question about whom she voted for in the 2012 presidential election” and got hammered for it. But in Iowa, when Ernst refused to say if she wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency or what she’d do for those who’d lose health care coverage if Obamacare is repealed, the reaction was mostly crickets.

The difference is that Grimes was clumsy over her handling of a process issue: her support for a president of her own party. Reporters feel free to go after that. Ernst, by contrast, was crafty over her handling of policy issues: in this case, environmental policy and health care policy. Likewise, Gardner is being crafty about his handling of abortion and contraceptive policy. That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don’t want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy—or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate’s policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.

There are exceptions to this rule if a candidate says something truly loony. But the bar is pretty high for that. Generally speaking, policy views are out of bounds for political reporters, regardless of whether they’ve changed or whether they’re transparently absurd. Ernst knows that. Grimes apparently didn’t.

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