03/03/2008 07:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Nominating Process as Entertainment

Way back in history, the 1960's to be exact, I wrote and produced a documentary entitled "The Nominating Process" for Encyclopedia Britannica Films. Those were the days when candidates were still chosen in "smoke-filled rooms". Britannica assigned Columbia political science professor Sidney Hyman as our academic expert/advisor.

It became clear that although both of us deplored the selection of Presidential candidates by a clique of professional politicians neither of us could conceive of a better way. Hyman emphasized that no matter how faulty the "smoke room" process was it had never resulted in the nomination of either "a hater or a fool".

Over the past forty years nominating caucuses and primaries have replaced back room politics and what was once decided in "smoke-filled rooms" is now revealed under the full glare of high definition television lights. The primaries are scrutinized as carefully and ceaselessly as the World Series, the Superbowl or the NCAA Final Four. We have turned the nominating process into a spectator sport.

For months preceding the conventions, politicos -- some play by play commentators, some ex-politician "experts" -- gather to analyze strategy, point out strengths and weaknesses of various contenders, pat their favorites on the back, slip the shiv into those they oppose and generally comport themselves in the style of Tim McCarver, John Madden and Dick Vitale. After the returns come in they second guess the contenders and their "coaches", explain away any of their own errors in prediction and blame or praise the now celebrity campaign managers and/or consultants.

Does the new process work? Speaking for myself, and thinking back to Heiman, it's a failure. In 2000 it produced our first fool of a President. Now it has left me with no candidate for whom I can happily vote. What's happened?

Six weeks ago in this space I suggested that the four cable news networks are using the nominating process as a long form entertainment event attempting to build a large fan base and turn millions of Americans into ardent rooters for one party or another. To see if they've succeeded take a look at last month's numbers:

CNN increased its primetime audience by 113% this February. It averaged 1,666,000 viewers -- last February it averaged 783,000. MSNBC went up 62% -- 771,000 this year vs. 476,000 last year. FoxNews gained only 16% (259,000 viewers), probably because John McCain had the nomination pretty well wrapped up by the middle of the month. Headline News was flat. They're stuck with Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace.

Best news for CNN was its victory in younger demographics. It was up 161% among 18-49 year olds, outdrawing Fox by 180,000 viewers. CNN more than tripled its 18-34 year old audience, MSNBC more than doubled its viewers and even Fox gained 61% (These gains demonstrated Barack Obama's popularity with twenty-somethings and, in CNN's case, the liberal leanings of much of its audience).

This year's cable news ratings and demographic success is likely to preserve the new "nominating process" for another couple of election cycles. Which means that, at a time when we are supposedly electing the "leader of free world" we will be making our decisions based on which candidate we'd most like to have a beers with, or the one with the best campaign strategy, or the fewest slip-ups, or the best political spinners on his/her pay-roll. I think the "smoke-filled rooms" did a better job, I know they'd never have nominated George Bush.