Half Savvy in Sacramento

In her preview of the contest for the open state Senate seat in Sacramento, Laurel Rosenhall of the Sacramento Bee demonstrates the peril, to reporter and readers alike, of being half savvy.

You know that cute little girl in the political ads for Assemblyman Richard Pan, who’s running against Assemblyman Roger Dickinson? You know, the one who smiles as Pan, in his white doctor’s coat, examines her? Her name isn’t Emily, Rosenhall tells us. No, her name is actually Seneca. And worse yet, “Her mom is a lobbyist and her dad is a political consultant. And the man depicted as her doctor is an assemblyman who spends more time in the Capitol than the exam room.”

Here, on full display, is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the cult of savvy” in political reporting. The reporter’s pose is that of the hard-headed and unsentimental observer who sees behind the curtain of the political game to the place where voters, those poor deluded saps, are manipulated. She knows what we don’t know, and asks her readers, as another journalism professor Todd Gitlin once described this brand of reporting, to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement." We are the objects of the game, where things aren’t what they seem to us. Pan, she tells us, wants the voters to see him as a beloved doctor, not just another politician. And the savvy reporter is not going to let him get away with it.

But when the reader gets beyond the gotcha lead paragraphs of Rosenhall’s article, her story dissolves. It turns out that Richard Pan is indeed a doctor, who has continued to practice part-time during his four years in the California Assembly. And it turns out that the little girl was, in fact, one of his patients. Before Pan was ever a candidate for office, the child’s mother, then chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association and now a partner in her own firm, picked Pan to be her new baby’s pediatrician. So the reader learns that Pan is not only really a doctor but, if you assume that the chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association is better positioned to know something about medical quality than the average consumer, probably a pretty good one too.

In other words, a story that asks the readers to watch themselves being manipulated by big money donors ends up validating and amplifying the very message the donors are so expensively sending: good and caring doctor, healthy and happy patient, trusting mother. There were, I suspect, high-fives all around at the Pan headquarters the day the story appeared. A thousand words in the Bee repeating your message: Priceless.

But what about Pan’s using “a campaign tactic that so obviously demonstrates his relationship with a lobbyist,” Rosenhall asks. It’s a strange question in general. All members of the Legislature have relationships with lobbyists; it’s the nature of the job. And it’s an even stranger question in this contest in particular, given Pan’s opponent. Pan may have put the daughter of a lobbyist in his campaign ad, but the savvy Rosenhall has neglected to tell her readers that his opponent Roger Dickinson climbs into bed with a lobbyist every night: his wife, Marjorie Dickinson, runs the government and community relations shop at UC Davis.

A reporter more interested in substance than savvy might have made something useful out of this story. Pan is counting on the public’s high regard of doctors as professionals to give him a halo effect. But a reporter versed in health policy might help voters understand that being a doctor in politics raises issues the electorate should care about.

Health care in the United States is far more expensive than anywhere else in the world. One big reason is that doctors here have used their political power to drive up their incomes and restrict competition. A reporter more interested in policy might have told us something about how Pan looks at and votes on issues — reimbursement rates, scope of practice by competing medical providers, malpractice, breadth of provider networks for health plans under Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange — where the interests of patients and businesses clash with those of doctors.

In fact, Rosenhall’s story, which looks to be the centerpiece of the Bee’s coverage of the Sacramento state Senate race, gives readers nothing apart from political savviness and the identity of campaign donors with which to make an informed judgment between the two major candidates. What are their voting records and how do they differ? How effective are they as lawmakers? What are their reputations for intelligence, policy knowledge, and honesty?

As a voter who lives in the district and has make a choice in this contest, I need to answer those questions. As a subscriber, that’s what I thought I was paying Rosenhall and my newspaper to give me. Instead I get Capitol gossip wrapped up as savviness.

The Wages of Primary 'Reform'

Darrell Issa
Darrell Issa

The promise of primary reform, including California’s new jungle primary law, was that it would lead to more moderation in politics. Widen the electorate in primary elections beyond all those nasty partisans, the reformers told us, and those elected would be more responsive to a broader range of views.

Richard Winger at Ballot Access News uses the House Republican vote on the fiscal cliff bargain to test that promise. His conclusion? “When one breaks down the list of Republicans who had been re-elected in November 2012, one finds that Republican members from closed primary states were far more likely to vote for the bill than Republicans from states with more open primaries,” including California’s undemocratic new system.

That doesn’t count as definitive evidence, but it’s a reminder that we are still waiting for the reformers to show us any evidence that the changes they pimped have had any benefit at all.

Those Not-So-Independent “Independents”

Congratulation to the alter kockers over at Calbuzz for trying to push a big rock up a steep hill: showing journalists that “independent” voters aren’t the same thing as “moderates” or “Decline to State” voters.

Political scientists have been pointing out for many years that many “independents” vote more reliably for one party or the other than do many people who are party registrants or who identify themselves with a party. But the brain-dead media keep ignoring the evidence.

In a culture that denigrates partisanship and promotes the notion that sophisticated people should be seen as thinking for themselves, it’s easy to see why more people these days describe themselves as “independents.” But why do journalists, who are trained to get a confirming source even when their mothers say “I love you,” take them at their word? If DTS voters are really “independent,” why are there such a high percentage of them in San Francisco and other Bay Area counties that vote overwhelmingly for Democrats?

Now that California has abolished party primaries and adopted a two-stage general election, party registration has become essentially meaningless. Your party registration matters only in presidential primaries (and even there it matters little if the parties continue to allow DTS voters to participate in their primary.) We can expect that more and more voters, as they register and re-register, will list themselves as DTS.

And as they do, expect to read and hear breathless accounts reporting that California voters are becoming more “independent.” You can lead the media to data but good luck in making them think, especially if it requires breaking with the conventional wisdom.

The missing voters

In a new column appearing in the Appeal Democrat, Thomas D. Elias takes me to task for suggesting, on this blog and at speaking events around the state, that the low turnout at the mega-millions June primary election was a signal of voter discontent with California’s broken government and politics. “'Voters have given up on believing in democracy under California’s current electoral system,’ moaned Mark Paul,” he quotes me as saying. It just isn’t so, Elias contends.

Sorry, Tom, but you couldn’t be more wrong. The only thing that makes me moan is people who hold themselves out as journalists and pundits but who can’t be bothered to check the facts.

Anyone with a whit of curiosity, five minutes of time, and an Internet connection could find the data in the chart below, which I drew from the official figures available on the California Secretary of State’s website.


It’s hard to see how any fair-minded person looking at the trend of voter turnout in gubernatorial years can conclude that the voter indifference in the June primary was an aberration, the result of having a contest only in the Republican race for governor. Voter turnout in the non-presidential years when California elects its governor and other statewide constitutional officers has plummeted over the last half century—by around 40 percent in primaries and about 30 percent in general elections. Although there has been some drop in voter participation in presidential elections, reflecting the new partisan reality that California hasn’t been in play in the last four national elections, the decline is not nearly as sharp and turnout has been been nearly level for the last three decades.

Yes, more people will cast votes in the November 2 general election because more people always vote in the general election than in the primary. But as Joe Mathews and I have been hearing dozens of times as we travel the state to talk about California Crackup, voters are appalled by the empty rhetoric and stale clichés of campaign-speak. They are disgusted by a deadlocked system of government that seems incapable of working. The governor’s race “has also been a disappointment: feeding their cynicism, taxing their patience — they long ago tuned out the incessant advertising — and instilling little faith that either candidate can deal with the state’s paralyzing dysfunction,” as Mark Barabak reports in the Los Angeles Times.

Elias believes “there’s every reason to vote this fall.” The voters we talk to, and those Barabak interviewed, know better. This has been the perfect Seinfeld campaign: the election about nothing. Here’s betting that once again, the number of eligible California voters who stay home will carry the day over those who go to the polls—a fact that’s not likely to change until we make the state governable again.