I’ve been reading the Lee stories about their polling of the statewide races with interest. The two trends that seem to have emerged from the polling are that Republican candidates are doing better than in 2014, and that wide swaths of the Montana electorate are poorly informed about a significant number of these races. I have some concerns about the polling results, a subject I hope to tackle later, but today I’d like to focus my attention on just why so many races seem to have badly informed voters.
The nexus of the sudden emergence of limitless big money in our elections and the slow, death spiral of newspapers in this country are a clear and present danger to representative government. Why does Congressman Ryan Zinke, for instance, need to connect with voters when he can raise millions of dollars from out-of-state donors to fund negative, dishonest attacks on his opponent? Why does Greg Gianforte need to worry about his ongoing support for the worst forms of discrimination or his outsourcing business record when he knows there will be little coverage of either and can self-fund millions in ads of himself fishing in streams and talking about how much he loves Montana?
And those are the big races that are getting attention. Imagine how poorly informed voters must be when it comes to the positions held by the candidates in the Tier B races. How many know that Elsie Arntzen not only has an incoherent position on the Common Core State Standards, but has voted for the privatization of Montana schools? How many know that Matt Rosendale was one of the most reactionary members of the last legislative session? Or that Corey Stapleton’s most aggressively defended position during this campaign seems to have been that the state shouldn’t do more to ensure that Montana’s native people can exercise the franchise?
And don’t even get me started on the contested Supreme Court race, where Kristin Juras seems to be running even with, if not ahead of Dirk Sandefur, despite lacking the experience and judgment necessary to sit on Montana’s highest court.
And legislative races? It’s as if they’re not even happening.
It’s just not enough to run new stories in which candidates answer softball questions about their “priorities” and it’s just not enough to wait for press releases and hit pieces to cover these races. It’s certainly not enough to devote two reporters to a trumped up front page non-story weeks before the election about a desperate, unqualified judicial candidate claiming, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that her opponent is behaving unethically.
We’re seeing the future of politics under Citizens United and a depleted press corps right now. The massive fundraising machine employed by candidates like Congressman Zinke are turning Montana’s House seat into a relatively cheap buy for national conservatives this year, and we can be sure that operation will be supercharged if Zinke runs for the Senate in 2018. Why will parties bother to choose the best, most experienced candidates when it’s clearly so much easier to follow the Gianforte model and try to use personal wealth to buy an election? And why will conservatives who want to overturn Montana’s public access and environmental protections search for qualified conservative jurists to run for the high court when they can funnel dark money into abhorrent ads attacking people brave or foolish enough to stand for election?
There is no doubt that this has been the worst-covered election season in my lifetime, with missed story after missed story, combined with an absurd focus on trivial issues replacing coverage of the critical differences between the visions and plans the two parties and their candidates have for the future of Montana. Stories about e-mails and airplane travel have supplanted necessary coverage about tax policy, the economic and moral impact of discrimination, and questions about a Montana Congressman who raised 6% of his fundraising total from within the state during his last report. When the news chain responsible for informing the majority of Montanans can’t even manage to cover critical races like the races for Superintendent and Auditor with anything resembling critical attention, we’ve got a serious problem in the state.
Newspapers can run editorials decrying the influence of money in elections—and they’re right to do so—but the less coverage they offer, the less in-depth reporting about critical issues they provide, the more powerful that dark money becomes. It’s great that Montana voters finally got some poll numbers about these races, but wouldn’t it be even better if we got some coverage?
Perhaps I am naive and an idealist still, and perhaps some of my friends would disagree with this premise, but I don’t think it’s good for democracy to have elections determined by the efficacy of campaigns and the influence of outside money. Those matter, but at core of democratic society, we need a vibrant press corps with the resources and knowledge to help voters see the truth about records and positions taken by candidates. Without that, the incentive to debase our politics even further into sound bites and fear tactics will only grow.