A broadcasting theory of the 1970s may be the best tool to understand the 2012 Republican nomination contest.
As I remind my kids, back in The Olden Days there were only a few TV channels. We had three, four if you counted PBS, and on a good day we could get a second NBC channel from Rochester and a second CBS from Mason City. (That was a REALLY good day because we got Bart's Clubhouse after school).
So let's call it six, with four basic messages and a couple of weaker signals that are just minor variations on the same theme. Sometimes those minor variations, like Bart's Clubhouse, are important to a demographic, socially cohesive group.
Sounds pretty analagous to a presidential primary field.
At the moment the 2012 Republican field is more like a basic cable lineup, but by the time people are actually caucusing it won't be much bigger than the old-school broadcast TV spectrum. Indeed, conservative columnist George Will got loads of attention this week for narrowing the field:
There are at most five plausible Republican presidents on the horizon - Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Utah governor and departing ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Massachusetts governor Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty.That's your major networks right there. Throw in a Herman Cain infomercial (does he remind anyone else of Alan Keyes crossed with Morrie Taylor?) and Ron Paul's public access show. Then of course there's Fox News.
Oh, wait, that's a real TV channel. And a real job for several candidates. Last week Fox suspended Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and gave them 60 days to, as they euphemistically say, fish or cut bait on a presidential run. The most important part of that news was that fellow Fox commentators Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin were not suspended, one more clue that they'll, apologies to the Steve Miller Band, take the money and not run.
So we basically have our channel lineup. It's a flawed slate of choices for Republicans, so what do they do?
Back in the 1960s, NBC executive Paul Klein came up with the theory of "least objectionable program" (LOP). "Since the introduction of television, the same percentage of sets are in use on, say, a Thursday evening at a certain hour, year after year, regardless of what content is broadcast." Fair enough. We know people are going to watch something on TV, we know Republicans are going to pick someone as a candidate.
Continuing with the LOP concept:
TV viewers turn the set on, deciding to "watch television", and then seek out something to watch from what is available, flipping around, not until they find "something they like" - because television programming is in fact very rarely satisfying, and viewers rarely watch anything they actually like - but until they find something that doesn't offend them enough to make them flip to the next channel.In a 100 plus channel market, that doesn't work so well, but if you have a limited menu of choices, being the least objectionable program can be a path to victory.
Every one of the major Republican contenders is flawed in some way. Newt Gingrich has his three divorces and abrasive personality. Mitt Romney has RomneyCare and his religion. Jon Huntsman served in the Obama administration, making him a non-starter. Mitch Daniels actually dared to dis the religious conservatives. Haley Barbour has a long DC insider history and exudes good ole boy so much that you expect him to be sending Roscoe P. Coltrane out to catch the Duke boys. And Tim Pawlenty is, well, meh.
And "well, meh" makes him the Least Objectionable Program. So this is a good test of my latest pet theory.