Is It the Media’s Fault?

Much of the commentary on this year’s election implies that the Republican Party is at a low ebb, if not actually on the path to extinction. But of course that isn’t true: at the state and local levels, the party is doing better than it has in decades. Glenn Reynolds writes:


Let me offer an alternative theory: The bigger role the national media play in a race, the worse Republicans do. So the GOP does well in state legislative races and governorships, and U.S. House races, because national media basically ignore those. Does worse in Senate races, where national media will sometimes take notice, worse still for Prez, where the national media pretty much control the game.

I am always slow to disagree with Glenn, since he is generally right. But this time, I don’t think his explanation is persuasive. As the chart shows, there are currently 24 states under entirely Republican control (governor and legislature). As it happens, there are also 24 states that went for Mitt Romney. I’m guessing it is pretty much the same list, and that the trend toward single-party control, which is the subject of the chart, is partly random and partly due to a few conservative states finally tossing out legacy Democratic legislative bodies.

It is true, as Glenn says, that the GOP is now stronger at the state and local level than nationally, but that hasn’t always been the case. The period between Nixon and Clinton, precisely the time when the GOP won its biggest presidential victories, was also the era when the GOP was in danger of becoming extinct at the state level. Why? Not because of anything the national media were up to; they hated Reagan and the first President Bush at least as much as they did John McCain and Mitt Romney. I don’t have any explanation except to note that the Reagan Democrats were, in fact, Democrats. Most of those folks, or their heirs, are now Republicans.

As Glenn’s comparison suggests, there are red states–those with Republican governors and legislatures–that elect Democratic Senators and, less often, Congressmen. Glenn implicitly attributes this pattern to relentless media bias, but I don’t think that explanation works since those states not only have Republican legislatures, but vote Republican in presidential elections. I think something else is at work. Quite a few voters have figured out that if you want good, fiscally conservative governance at the state level, you should elect Republicans. At the national level, however, you can’t bring about good governance anyway, so you might as well elect Democrats who will bring home the bacon. Such thinking explains why the solidly-red Dakotas, among other states, have contributed a depressing number of Democrats to the Senate and, to a lesser degree, the House.

This is not to deny that the liberal media have a huge influence on national elections; of course they do. And it is also true, as Glenn says, that state and local issues don’t tend to be demagogued as relentlessly as national ones. But I think that what is mainly going on is that many voters are more concerned about fiscal responsibility at the state and local level than the national level, for the simple reason that the states can’t print money, and rely on sales and property taxes, along with, in most cases, relatively flat income taxes. Therefore, voters know that if they vote for more state spending, they will have to pay for it.

At the national level, we have seen an increasing disconnect between spending and payment. This is partly because most people pay either no, or very modest, federal income taxes, and partly because 40% of all federal spending is borrowed, so that our children will have to pay for it. To the average voter, federal money must seem to appear almost magically. There has been, in recent years, no connection at all between increased spending and any necessity to pay for it. So I think it is not surprising that the Democrats are currently doing better at the national level than the state and local levels.

This strikes me as one data point among many that indicate it is time to revise our federal tax code so that more voters are also, to a meaningful degree, payers of federal taxes.

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