As amorous embraces go, few could be more ardent than the one Beto O’Rourke got this month from Vanity Fair magazine.
The perfectly timed cover treatment was the full monty: Rugged-glam photo by the legendary Annie Leibovitz, the former Texas congressman’s earnest Kennedy-esque gaze, and the ripe-for-parody headline including this immortal quote: “I’m just born to be in it.”
Most Americans wouldn’t see the magazine itself, of course, but the rest of the news media — including network evening news — helped spread the image around as they gave over-the-top coverage to O’Rourke’s kickoff.
Does soft-focus treatment like this help a candidate’s cause?
It sure doesn’t hurt. His campaign raised more than $6 million its first day, edging out Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ impressive one-day fundraising a few weeks earlier.
A few days later, the website PredictIt (“the stock market for politics”) listed as its top three presidential contenders: former Vice President Joe Biden (who hadn’t even declared yet), Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke.
Somehow, despite a remarkably diverse Democratic field — which includes a record number of women, a gay man and several people of color — the B-Boys (that is, Beto, Biden and Bernie) were off and running.
The news media undoubtedly was part of the equation. With more than 18 months to go before the 2020 election, the love and attention was not being dished out in equal measure.
As author Rebecca Traister described it, she woke up one morning this week thinking about the flawed notion that being a white man is actually a disadvantage, given this diverse field.
The reality is quite the opposite, she wrote on Twitter: “Early metrics would show it to be an extremely powerful polling & fundraising boon, as it has always, always been.”
Author Linda Hirshman told me how frustrated she felt this week after watching “brilliant” town-hall appearances featuring Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York. The candidates offered detailed policy proposals and came off as smart and appealing.
“But I woke up to still more media fixation on Beto,” she said. (Warren did capture some prominent headlines for saying she’d like to see the end of the electoral college in favor of a system where “every vote matters.”)
The reason for this, Hirshman posits, is the almost cartoonish way in which the national media depicts candidates: as characters in a drama.
“The national media is most interested in telling stories, in an almost novelistic way,” said Hirshman, whose book “Reckoning: The Epic Battle Against Sexual Abuse and Harassment” will be published in June.
This gives candidates like the B-Boys a “structural advantage,” she said.
Traditional fiction, after all, likes to depict a woman in peril and the caped male avenger swooping in to save the day. While local news media tend to focus on policy that would affect their communities, national media look for — and endlessly repeat — the broad-brush caricature: Gillibrand is the mean woman who unfairly took down former Sen. Al Franken, O’Rourke is “tall and cute” and wants to heal a divided country.
Robert Leonard, news director of two Iowa radio stations, told me in an email exchange that he’s been impressed by the enthusiastic welcome that candidates including Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, are getting in his state.
“I think the women have lots of traction — especially Warren and Harris,” Leonard said.
He described the Massachusetts senator as “electric,” attracting a huge crowd and exuding personal warmth. (A far cry from the fretting about whether she is likable enough.) “People love [Sen.] Cory Booker, too.”
Having talked to Iowa supporters of every candidate in the race (and some who aren’t yet), Leonard sees the contest as wide open and offers this caution: “Poll numbers that show Biden and Sanders up top only tell us about the past, not the future.”
But, one might argue, doesn’t it make good sense to give the most coverage to those candidates who seem to have the most early support?
Well, that depends on what the coverage aim is.
Is it the “horse-race” model that attempts to say who’s ahead and who will ultimately win the nomination and the presidency? You might recall from 2016 that — despite all the honing of this skill — prognostication is not the media’s forte.
Or is it a citizens-first model that attempts to inform the electorate so they can make the best decisions?
The horse-race model seems, as usual, to be out ahead by more than a few furlongs.
And so, we hear a lot about the B-Boys. In polling, in fundraising, in media ardor, they begin to seem inevitable.
It’s early, of course. And these patterns may well change.
But right now, these three almost seem to have the whole thing sewn up.
And, when many Democratic voters put sheer electability (unseating President Donald Trump) as the top priority, this media-driven momentum takes on even more power.
That’s potentially dangerous.
It would be a shame — and counterproductive — if premature judgments end up transforming all this diversity and talent into a shrugged-off bunch of also-rans.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.