The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Despite Media Hype, President Oprah Isn’t a Slam Dunk

Making the click-through worthwhile this morning: Oprah-mania turns out to be bigger in the media than the electorate at large, Wisconsin gives Republicans a good reason to worry about the midterms, and South Korea makes a dramatic announcement about the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony.

What If Oprah-Mania Is Really Just a Media Phenomenon?

Hey, remember last week when it seemed like there was this overwhelming appetite for a presidential campaign by Oprah Winfrey? It turns out that only a small percentage of folks thought that was such a good idea.

Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said Winfrey should not run for president, compared to 24 percent who said she should. Seventeen percent said they did not know or had no opinion.

If the election were held today, Winfrey would lead Trump 40 percent to 38 percent, within the poll’s plus or minus 2-percentage point margin of error.

“If you were watching cable news the Monday after the Golden Globes, you would have thought the numbers would say 99 percent of Americans want her to run,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, in a Tuesday interview. “Certainly polls have their limitations, but these numbers don’t quite indicate that degree of enthusiasm.”

Interestingly, the early numbers suggest Oprah wouldn’t be a slam-dunk to win the Democratic nomination after all, depending upon who her top rival is.

In head-to-head primary matchups with a handful of possible Democratic 2020 contenders, Winfrey performed best against New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand among Democrats, leading her 44 percent to 23 percent. She also leads Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 39 percent to 35 percent. The poll found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) would beat Winfrey, 46 percent to 37 percent. But former Vice President Joe Biden would beat Winfrey by a larger margin, 54 percent to 31 percent, among Democrats.

This kind of a wild disconnect between the media’s perspective and that of the larger public doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The irony is that the numbers on Oprah enthusiasm reverse the traditional narrative about a shallow, vacuous, celebrity-obsessed general public and a serious, deep-thinking, policy and detail-focused news media. What if it’s the other way around? What if the public wants a more serious discussion about government policies and their tangible consequences, and less fluffy discussion and debate about charismatic familiar faces?

When David Broder wrote with sadness about the death of columnist Robert Novak, he wrote that Novak and his colleagues of past eras had been brought to Washington by “by editors who had a passionate commitment to covering Congress and politics as if the decisions being debated really mattered.” He contended that good political journalism meant “’getting down in the weeds,’ really understanding the personal dynamics of a Ways and Means subcommittee or the ambitions of the lieutenant governor of Texas.”

I have this nagging feeling that a decent percentage of today’s political journalists don’t want to actually write about politics, and that they really want to write the kind of glossy celebrity profiles that we’re used to seeing in places like Vanity Fair, GQ, Vogue, and maybe even People or Us Weekly. I noticed last year that a glossy profile of Kirsten Gillibrand in Vogue couldn’t bring itself to really look at the senator’s record and left readers with at least three glaringly false impressions — that Gillibrand is an economic centrist, an iconoclast, and a campaigning powerhouse with cross-party appeal.

Look, you read this newsletter, so you know I enjoy writing about Star Wars and Twin Peaks and the Jets and lots of “fun stuff” in life. Not everything written about politics has to be as detail-heavy as Congressional Quarterly or Governing magazine. But the disconnect on Oprah suggests that a chunk of the American people are not automatically enraptured by every famous celebrity who flirts with a political campaign . . . unlike, say, bored political reporters who want to write about someone glamorous and exciting.

An Ominous Sign for Republicans in Wisconsin

Is it time for Republicans to panic about the midterms? Last night a corner of western Wisconsin held a special election for an open state Senate seat. The previous Republican incumbent, Sheila Harsdorf of River Falls, held the seat for 17 years. The district had voted for Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. Part of the district overlaps with Dunn County, which is a “pivot county,” which means it voted for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016. In other words, this is a state senate district where Republicans can win and should win.

But last night Democrat Patty Schachtner defeated Republican assemblyman Adam Jarchow, and it wasn’t that close: a 55 percent to 44 percent margin. Some optimistic Republicans might think, “eh, it’s the middle of winter, it’s easy for voters to tune out and forget about a special election like this.” Yes, but Republicans usually pay more attention to special elections and turn out in better numbers.

Last night in a series of tweets, Governor Scott Walker said the special election was “a wake up call for Republicans in Wisconsin. Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. Help us share the good news. Can’t presume voters know that more people are working than ever before. Help us share the good news. Can’t presume that voters know that we invested more actual dollars into schools than ever before. Help us share the good news.”

Our old friend Christian Schneider observes, “In a low-turnout race, the Republican was getting an astounding 1/7th of the Sheila Harsdorf 2016 vote in GOP strongholds, while the Dem got about 1/3 of the 2016 Dem vote, leading to some insane local results. Enthusiasm gap, bad messaging and Trumpism are all suspects.”

If you paid attention to the state legislative elections late last year, you saw Democrats enjoying a lot of surprise wins in Virginia, adding to their majorities in New Jersey, flipping a seat in New Hampshire’s state house  in November, flipped two state house seats in Georgia, and winning a narrow upset victory in a state senate race in Oklahoma.

Yes, every election is influenced by the quality of the candidates and other outside factors, but the simplest and most likely explanation is that Democrats are fired up and motivated to pay attention and turn out, even in places where they aren’t a majority, like River Falls, Wisconsin and Athens, Georgia, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s not hard to figure out why, either. If the dominant spirit of a political party’s national leader, its most impassioned voices, and arguably even its grassroots is gleeful antagonism, cheering moves because “they drive the other side crazy” and how you crave “liberal tears,” that party cannot be surprised when the other side is antagonized and highly motivated to come out and defeat them.

The Olympics Opening Ceremony Just Got a Little More Dramatic

Is it just me, or does this sound like a reward to the North Koreans for bad behavior?

North and South Korean athletes will march together at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony under a unified flag, the South said Wednesday, in a diplomatic breakthrough following days of talks between the two countries.

They will also field a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, which begin early next month, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said.

North and South Korean skiers will train together at a resort in North Korea before the Olympics start, and performers from the two countries will also hold a joint cultural event there.

South Korea is free to pursue its own policies to alleviate tensions with North Korea. But one of the stated goals of the North Korean regime is unification, on its terms. (Some analysts argue that Pyongyang says it wants unification, but isn’t willing to actually make any sacrifices to make unification happen. It’s a wish list, not a plan.) Still, North Korea’s been basically an angry drunk on the world stage for the past year, and South Korea just gave them the reward of pretending to be united on the biggest world stage.

ADDENDA: I know many Republicans want to love Trump, but many of his biggest problems come down to simple incompetence of himself and those around him: “Nearly everyone who spoke with [Fire and Fury author Michael] Wolff thought someone else in the White House had approved their participation. And it appears that not a single person in a position of authority to halt cooperation with the book — including Trump himself — raised any red flags, despite Wolff’s well documented history. His previous work included a critical book on Trump confidant Rupert Murdoch.”

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