Election Hype: Robert Boatright in Washington Post, Vox

by Phillip Witteveen on July 11, 2014

RBThere’s a kind of new journalism going on at Vox, with its swerving grey imprimatur over sharp yellow rectangles. One of Vox’ ever-changing taglines makes you think about its name: “The smartest thinkers, the toughest questions.” Vox is a stress test of the upper limit of our most interesting conversationalists, for whatever has brought them to our attention: being threatened by North Korea for a comedy (Seth Rogen), being the most powerful man in the free world (Mr. President, your two minutes are up) or having a nifty point of view on pop music (say, Bob Stanley, music journalist and author).

Vox brings all kinds of voices together into concert, in interview or commentary, and challenges them to make sense, and make sense of a world that’s curious about itself—a world that’s listening to a 24 hour news cycle.

So, that’s Vox: Ezra Klein’s new mast and steer in a new age of journalistic inquiry.

But, in keeping with Klein’s wonkish reputation, there remains a serious focus on politics at Vox. In the wake of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s unexpected fall, and Senator Thad Cochran’s close (and still contested) primary win, the site asked a simple question with a complex answer: Is the Tea Party primary surge a huge myth? It turns out, that our very own Robert Boatright, professor of Political Science and author of Getting Primaried is one of many with a nifty point of view on this subject, although, as Vox correspondent Andrew Prokop claims, “His book… is the most comprehensive recent analysis of the topic.”

Prokop starts simple. “What does the media get wrong about primaries?” he asks.

And Boatright eases into his wheelhouse.

“Primaries are exciting,” he says, “They’re like a Sopranos episode when you find out somebody in your gang is consorting with the other side, they get knocked off—the drama’s irresistible. ‘Ooh, the right wing got that guy, because he was too liberal.’ So it’s not a surprise that people tend to find good stories here.”

Similarly, in a recent Washington Post article, Boatright mills the chaff out of the right wing’s ostensibly most recently knocked off somebody—Eric Cantor. As Boatright tells the Post, “If we see plenty of articles that allege that the Cantor defeat means that immigration reform is dead, or some other such grand policy implication, then the story may become reality. But that reality doesn’t follow from the election itself.” Whether or not Cantor’s loss is, in reality, a referendum, depends entirely on interpretation. But what does the data show?

As initial lines of skirmish, primary elections tend to pit the moral infirmities of its candidates against each other much more often than the inner workings of the ideology they subscribe to. According to Boatright, “Only 19 percent of cases involved a conservative challenge to a Republican or a liberal challenge to a Democrat.  Nearly 40 percent of primary challenges have to do with the incumbent’s age, incompetence, or ethical troubles. It is rare to see a victorious primary challenger who has run explicitly on ideology.”

Boatright contends that ideology is generally a slower moving animal than those whose candidacy and office perpetuate it. Most successful challenges to incumbents do not come from party advance, but rather personal recession, “challenged on the basis that they have lost touch with their states or districts.” And so, as is so often the case, and in this one too, “Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.” As Boatright explains, “…it is easy to allow perception to become reality. Primaries provide an irresistible storyline to hang arguments about ideological extremism or about the popularity of issues like immigration or guns.”

To learn more about the drama of primary elections, read the full articles in Vox and The Washington Post. And be sure to keep up with Robert Boatright’s latest contribution to Political Science proper: Getting Primaried.

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