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What Exactly Makes a Candidate ‘Serious,’ Anyway?

Has Herman Cain’s campaign always been a joke, or were pundits right to take it somewhat seriously? In the wake of multiple allegations of sexual harassment levied against him, was the media asking the wrong questions by focusing on how it might help or hurt his supposed “candidacy”—as opposed to, say, his book sales? The question of what makes a “serious” candidate for the presidency is at least as old as such twentieth-century developments as state primaries and electronic media. But the angry disputes over the seriousness of candidates for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination are a sign of something new and strange: a tumultuous environment in one of our two major parties that the old rules of analysis set by practitioners, historians, and political scientists may not be adequate to explain.

Indeed, the meteoric trajectories of such untraditional figures as Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain have inspired much anxiety over the forces behind their rapid rises and falls. Jonathan Bernstein has his own theory of how so many “clowns” have wound up cutting capers on the GOP campaign trail, mostly involving the proliferation of “business plan” candidates who are building up their profiles in order to sell books or land TV gigs. But more often the media is getting blamed for giving unserious candidates the oxygen they need to gum up the works. Conservative commentator James Poulos expressed this feeling vividly in the context of Herman Cain’s sudden notoriety:

The media salivates over whatever is of the least substance—as, every week, a freshly manufactured fetish object takes pride of place. Cain runs an operation so unready for prime time that Sarah Palin can’t take it seriously, preferring—how low the bar—Newt Gingrich.

Sadly, the Cain Train is now the locomotive of a Republican race for the White House that’s run off the rails. The grand theme is a total lack of seriousness. Not seriousness in the self-serious sense that, say, Jon Huntsman would use it. Seriousness in the sense that everyone, from Cain to his fans and critics to their proxies in the chattering class, seems positively thrilled to fight to the death over the trivialities of political theater.

This is a complaint often made in the past by progressives, who seem convinced, for example, that Sarah Palin was purely and simply a media creation (an opinion that betrays ignorance of her celebrity status in pro-life circles well before John McCain brought her to the attention of national media types). But if it may be satisfying to easily discomfited souls to dismiss the unexpected success of unconventional candidacies as products of an out-of-control media culture, it’s probably a good idea to take a fresh look at the question of why this or that would-be president should or should not be taken seriously. In a campaign season in which the GOP nomination is effectively comprised of two separate, parallel races—one for the hearts of the Tea Party movement, and one for those of the conservative establishment—it turns out that the question of who’s serious and who’s not is one over which the mainstream media exercises surprisingly little authority.  

To clear up one immediate source of confusion, candidacies can have serious consequences even if the candidate has no plausible path to the nomination. This year, for example, Michele Bachmann was probably never in a position to become the nominee. But it was clear from the beginning that she could, and eventually did, end Tim Pawlenty’s very serious candidacy by beating her fellow-Minnesotan in the Iowa GOP Straw Poll. Similarly, nobody much thinks Rick Santorum is going to be raising his hands in triumph in Tampa next year as the GOP nominee. But his tortoise-like campaign in Iowa could develop sufficient momentum to deny another serious candidate, Rick Perry, a win over the ultimate serious candidate, Mitt Romney, in the Iowa Caucuses on January 3.   

Another issue that often causes a dialogue-of-the-deaf on the seriousness of this or that candidate is how broadly you define the “elites” who clearly have some role in shaping the presidential field. Some observers seem to think there is a shadowy, Illuminati-esque cabal of rich folk who literally sit around and decide GOP (and for that matter, Democratic) nominations. Others focus on “Beltway elites,” including K Street lobbyists and big-time pundits. Many definitions of Republican elites seem to assume they are composed of people who are ideologically moderate, or at least disinterested in non-economic issues. Others, like Jonathan Bernstein, have a more sophisticated view of elites as including major advocacy-group players like the Right-to-Life movement and the Christian Right, who have an effective veto-power over candidates—not to mention relatively new, ideologically driven money titans like the Koch brothers or Art Pope, who don’t fit into standard categories. Candidates who are deemed “serious” by elements of this broader set of elites should be taken seriously by journalists as well. 

Still another source of rancor and debate in this discussion is the important distinction between candidates who are long shots because they aren’t well known and those who simply can’t win because their views are not within a party’s mainstream. Ron Paul supporters are forever complaining that their man never gets media attention commensurate with his standing in the polls or his ability to turn out crowds. But Paul’s wildly heterodox foreign policy views alone guarantee a cap on his levels of support, and mean that he could never, ever win a GOP nomination even with (or perhaps especially with) universal name ID and unlimited cash. Herman Cain, on the other hand, had always (at least until recently) enjoyed incredibly high favorable marks among the segments of the GOP electorate that had heard of him—and his popularity in the party grew, absent any media goading, alongside his name recognition. 

But the biggest factor that suggests a re-evaluation of measures of candidate seriousness is the existence this year of an intense GOP intraparty struggle which has scrambled a lot of the conventional rules. For the Tea Party movement—which appears to represent roughly half the GOP primary electorate nationally, and a lot more than that in some states—candidate credentials like broad name ID or prior experience or early-state positioning or even money have become vastly less important than fidelity to an exceptionally narrow set of conservative principles. That explains why Rick Perry’s heresy on immigration policy was so damaging once it became clearly known to his Tea Party base, and why much of that base immediately gravitated to Herman Cain, whose lack of political experience is considered an actual asset in Tea Party circles. And it’s also why Newt Gingrich, considered laughably “un-serious” as a candidate by most of the political world, is getting another audition now that Cain seems to be on the edge of imploding. The criteria for seriousness in the sub-primary being conducted by the Tea Party to choose a champion against Mitt Romney are not the same as the conventional criteria for the party as a whole. 

All in all, it seems wise for media commentators to suspend their prior assumptions about candidate seriousness for the duration of this particular nomination cycle and just follow the lead of Republican voters. If anything is clear, they know what they want far better than anyone who is tempted to tell them who they can or cannot support.  

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.