First Beto, then Pete: How the media are culling the Democratic contenders
South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
The media's hot candidate of the moment, hands down, is Mayor Pete.
He succeeds, at least for a few news cycles, the media's previous darling, Beto.
And you just know that, if she were 35 instead of 29, the media would be leading the AOC-for-prez boomlet.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden is most assuredly not hot, in media terms, thanks to the unwanted touching and kissing, although he will be the nominal front-runner on the day he gets in.
Which leads me to a somewhat serious question: How will news outlets go about winnowing the Democratic field?
After all, 18 declared candidates — oops, 19, with Rep. Tim Ryan getting in yesterday — is absurdly unwieldy. The practical reality is that, at any given time, the press will treat no more than half a dozen as plausible nominees. There is only so much air time, only so much front-page real estate. As of now, each network debate is going to take two nights.
Just to be clear, I'm not advocating that the pundits pick winners and losers, especially since they're so often wrong. (Exhibit A: Donald Trump. Exhibit B: Hillary will clobber Obama. Exhibit C: McCain was toast in '07.) I'm just explaining the practical reality.
Right now, the press is using fundraising as a proxy for political viability.
By that measure, Bernie Sanders is the front runner, having bagged $18.2 million in the first quarter. Everyone knew that Bernie knew how to crank up the online money machine, though I'd say there's still skepticism that he will ultimately be the nominee.
Finishing second is Kamala Harris, with a $12 million haul. That is an impressive performance for a freshman senator, but since Harris was seen as being strong out of the gate, it didn't quite have the surprise factor.
In third place is Beto O'Rourke, who the press was touting as a White House aspirant even while he was losing his Senate race to Ted Cruz. This is a guy who launched his campaign in conjunction with a largely admiring Vanity Fair cover story. So raising $9.4 million in the first quarter shows he's not a flash in the pan.
Close behind, and this is something of a shocker, is Pete Buttigieg, who no one had heard of until 12 minutes ago. He raised more than $7 million, which is fairly incredible for a guy who's the mayor of South Bend. And even more incredible because he barely has a campaign structure.
Buttigieg is a Rhodes Scholar and military veteran who talks about his faith and is also gay. He raised the big bucks on the strength of a few television interviews. It’s hard to imagine him as a top-tier contender for the long haul, but he is the media's flavor of the week.
Meanwhile, such well-known senators as Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar have lagged in fundraising, and the press isn't giving them much attention.
The flaw in this approach is that money doesn't always win elections. In fact, Hillary Clinton vastly outspent Trump and lost anyway. So, by the way, did Jeb Bush. And the era of small-donor digital fundraising has changed the game, so a strong quarter doesn't necessarily show a well-oiled campaign with lots of big backers and bundlers.
Now the storyline will change 50 times, especially after Biden gets in or, if he doesn't, other moderate Democrats try to fill that lane.
But the media are going to have more power than usual to anoint the members of the top tier, and that will favor the candidates who are most savvy at generating coverage — a skill that Trump had, and has, in spades.