Power Rankings of Presidential Candidates

Each week during the NFL season, Business Insider publishes power rankings not just of the NFL teams but of the quarterbacks leading those teams.

This fall, Business Insider has started publishing weekly power rankings of the presidential candidates, complete with the candidate’s polling averages nationally and in the earliest primary states, as well as an indication of whether his or her stock is rising, falling, or neutral.

Here are the presidential power rankings for the week of September 29:

  1. Rick Santorum
  2. Bobby Jindal
  3. Lindsay Graham
  4. Martin O’Malley
  5. Chris Christie
  6. Mike Huckabee
  7. Rand Paul
  8. Bernie Sanders
  9. John Kasich
  10. Ted Cruz
  11. Joe Biden
  12. Carly Fiorina
  13. Jeb Bush
  14. Marco Rubio
  15. Ben Carson
  16. Donald Trump
  17. Hillary Clinton

I am guessing that you scanned the entire list and that you started making editorial comments as you did so—e.g. Chris Christie isn’t doing any better than Martin O’Malley? Why is Bernie Sanders only ranked 10th? And where are Lincoln Chaffee, Jim Webb, Jim Gilmore, and George Pataki? (As far as I know, none of them has officially dropped out, and since Rick Perry and Scott Walker received more news coverage when they announced they were quitting the race than they received for anything else that they did during their campaigns, I don’t think that I could have missed any other candidate’s exit.)

Like the NFL power rankings, these rankings are meant to be predictive, but since they are based on current data, they don’t factor out inflated expectations or factor in predictable, never mind unexpected, developments.

So, when I came across these rankings, I had a very ambivalent response.

On the one hand, I thought that, in the midst of all of the incessant and premature media noise about the election, it seems helpful that someone is attempting to provide a thoughtful and fairly straightforward measure of where the candidates stand at a given time—a calculated estimate of at least their present chances of winning their parties’ nominations and then the presidency.

On the other hand, I could not help but think that this sort of ranking is reflective of the attempted reduction of our politics to just another form of entertainment.

It seems worth noting here that a 2013 article from Business Insider included the following chart:

NFL TV Viewership

The article by Aaron Taube is titled “America’s Obsession with the NFL Is Single-Handedly Saving TV.”

Indeed, the only kind of programming that can now compete at all with the NFL is “reality television.” And the unrelenting, intrusive, and often singularly uninformative coverage of large-scale human tragedies has made it clear that the cable news networks have become, in all too many ways, just another form of reality television. Intensive coverage of a story is no longer indicative of its relative importance as news but, instead, of its ability to attract viewers—now largely a euphemism for rubberneckers pausing in their daily routines to gawk at endlessly recycled images of the world’s most spectacular disasters, but especially American disasters. (And I am not being entirely condescending here. Even though I find cable news extremely exasperating, and increasingly so, I myself, for some inexplicable reason, keep watching—at least whenever an NFL game isn’t on another channel.)

One of the media talking points about the current presidential campaign is that Donald Trump has somehow changed politics by changing the media coverage of politics. But this so-called Trumpification of American politics is an all too convenient media rationalization of its own almost total abdication of its responsibilities to distinguish demagoguery from statesmanship and pandering from policy-making.

Because of his success as a “reality television” star, Donald Trump has been able to recognize ahead of just about everyone else that he will get exhaustive media coverage as long as his “appearances” produce ratings. So it is really not an issue whether his candidacy is substantive or even coherent or whether voters will begin to tire of his candidacy. It is more a matter of whether viewers will continue to watch the coverage of his antics. There is simply no telling what the actual voters may or may not do.

For one of the main things largely lost in the incessant polling is that fewer and fewer viewers are actually voting—even as fewer and fewer people are actually watching any television programming, except for the NFL games, on their televisions.

The problem is not just that the GOP is a minority party and that the Tea Party adherents who are likely to turn out for the primaries are a minority within that minority.

The problem is that the viability of candidacies is now being largely determined by television ratings when far fewer people are watching than are even voting.

(As a side note, paid political advertising is probably entering its death throes, a development which, paradoxically, will only intensify the demand for media-friendly candidates who can drive ratings and attract other kinds of advertising revenue. As this process unfolds, one can imagine a candidate without much traction placing ads on a news program that is likely to be providing “free” coverage to a candidate who produces ratings such as Trump.)

So, now more than ever, the power rankings of the presidential candidates should be completely meaningless this far out from the first primary. But the truth is that no one can now predict whether a certain candidacy will likely rise or fall because presidential politics has finally been reduced to the sort of almost completely empty-headed entertainment that social commentators fearfully predicted when a televisions fist became commonplace in American homes.

In fact, if you watch some of the excellent series now being shown on cable channels such as HBO and Showtime, you will probably agree that our political campaigns have been reduced not just to a peculiar kind of entertainment but to particularly bad television.

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