“Twitter isn’t real life.” So declared New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg last week, writing on the budding Democratic presidential primary. In fact, as a source of information on the state of the party, the platform is “actively misleading,” she said, noting that Bernie Sanders has twice as many followers as Joe Biden, yet it’s Biden who’s leading in the polls. “Left-wing Twitter isn’t a microcosm of the Democratic Party,” she went on, “it’s just a small, noisy fraction of it.”
A month earlier, Goldberg’s colleague Lisa Lerer had primed the pump by complaining that Twitter was “totally unrepresentative of America.” She cited an analysis in the Times which found that Democrats on Twitter tend to be more white, more educated, and more liberal than the party’s voters as a whole. And in the wake of Goldberg’s column, Bret Stephens took up the cause as well: “The sensible center of America—that is, the people who choose presidents in this country—wants to see Donald Trump lose next year, but not if it means empowering the junior totalitarians of the left. Now is Biden’s chance to make it clear he’s just the man to fulfill that hope.”
It’s one thing to say Twitter isn’t representative; it’s another to say Democrats want a centrist candidate, or that they’re dead set on Biden. Yet for these writers, the logical gap between these assertions might as well not exist. They point to polling as justification, but neglect to mention that at this stage in the 2016 cycle Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker were all jockeying for frontrunner status.
Any attempt to articulate the primary’s outcome at this early stage amounts to little more than guesswork, but refuting Twitter as a potential source of information about the Democratic electorate is revealing. By attempting to wrest the narrative away from a bunch of A.O.C. super-fans, the Times’ editorialists are making clear their preference for simplistic horse race coverage over more holistic analysis. Factoring in Twitter, especially when it contradicts the polls, requires a more nuanced view of the race, one that grapples with policy debates about health care and climate change. What these writers seem reluctant to acknowledge is that the more nuanced view would probably be more accurate, too.
Biden’s numbers undoubtedly look commanding compared to what Jeb et al managed in May 2015. Still, it would be foolish to ignore other measures of public opinion. As Goldberg observed, Trump’s following on Twitter in 2015 “far outstripped his rivals. His tweets drove news cycles, and channeled the resentments of a furious base.” She mentions a Times report from October of that year which laid out how the businessman had “managed to fulfill a vision… sketched out a decade ago by a handful of digital campaign strategists: a White House candidacy that forgoes costly, conventional methods of political communication and relies instead on the free, urgent and visceral platforms of social media.”
By the time that article ran, Trump was leading in the polls with numbers that were widely ignored by commentators, including The Atlantic’s David Greenberg, who argued that the story these surveys were telling about “an angry populism” on the rise could be an “illusion.” In that case, it seems, the polls weren’t worth listening to unless they told you something you already believed. Observers aren’t likely to make that mistake again, yet there’s still a temptation to treat Trump’s use of Twitter as a one-off road to electoral success. That analysts took so long to come around to the idea of Trump as the tribune of the GOP is all the more reason to do the opposite of what the Times is suggesting. Twitter, in 2015, was something of a leading indicator, meaning it presaged where the polls were headed. There’s no guarantee that such a phenomenon will repeat itself over the next eight months—but then, there’s no guarantee that it won’t, either.
Instead, the media appears to have embraced a simplistic narrative about the Democratic primary—one that myopically treats the polls as an excuse to hoist Biden up on a pedestal. On Friday, CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote that the primary was Biden’s “race to lose,” and in the days since, Smilin’ Joe has been called a “frontrunner” by everyone from Reuters to Fox News. Treating Biden’s current lead as predictive promises to be self-reinforcing. As the press narrows in on him as a leading candidate, it will become harder and harder for other contenders to get their messages out, meaning Biden will have little incentive to engage with their positions and proposals in a way that might force him to meaningfully reexamine his own.
On Tuesday, CNN’s lead poll-minder Harry Enten demonstrated why it’s vital to avoid narrowing in on one presidential aspirant at this early stage. He wrote that though Biden’s numbers were consistent with what other candidates who had gone on to win the nomination were garnering at this point in the primary, Biden nevertheless still looked like a “frontrunner who wins somewhere between 40% and 50% of the time, which leaves the door open to challengers.” There are more than twenty Democrats vying for the anti-Biden title. It would be a mistake to shoo them out of the spotlight before they’ve had their say.
Horse-race coverage makes sense to some degree—we all want to know who’s going to win, and a policy position only matters if one is in a position to execute it—but with so much time before any votes are cast, why are observers in such a rush? What’s preventing them from directing their attention to the debates happening among leftists on Twitter about the Green New Deal or the student loan crisis? A primary’s raison d’être is determining the nominee, but the process serves a double purpose: it allows the party to take stock of what it stands for and what needs to change ahead of the next election. Even if Twitter doesn’t end up being much of a leading indicator for the Democrats this time around, the political conversations happening on the platform nonetheless need to be heard.
The Times’ analysis makes clear that activists’ opinions on social media don’t represent the party as a whole. Fair enough. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. Observers like Goldberg and Stephens will be proven wrong again and again in the next eighteen months; as they whittle away the time before average voters start paying attention, these writers would do well to demonstrate a bit of humility about their own powers of prognostication. There’s a dissonance between the voices online and the voices at a Biden rally, sure. But that dissonance tells us something about what the electorate wants for the nation. Try listening. The small, noisy fraction might have something useful to say—if their ideas seem to stretch beyond what the opinionator class considers real life, well, maybe the editorialists need to take off their blinders.