Sometimes the latest new thing is something antique. That’s especially true in American politics, which has had seriously contested presidential elections every four years (with one exception) since 1800 and competitions between the same two durable parties since 1856. We’re even on our (lucky?) 13th presidential nominating race since the rules were changed in the 1970s to favor primaries rather than caucuses.
It’s even true that new technology can bring back old politics. Case in point: President Trump’s often lamented, occasionally backfiring, and sometimes effective use of Twitter. In 140, and then 280 characters, the unconventional candidate and president has communicated directly, over the heads of an almost uniformly hostile media, with the American people.
Where might he have gotten the idea and developed the knack? In the unique tabloid politics of New York City, which was raging hot and heavy when the young Outer Borough real estate heir made headlines in his quest to use political clout to enter the Manhattan real estate market at rock bottom.
From the 1920s to the 1980s, New York’s tabloids’ front-page headlines vied to attract subway riders’ nickels and dimes each day, and their circulation peaked with subway ridership in 1947, at 2,400,000 copies a day.
The tabs, as they were called, published multiple editions each day, geared to different rush hours, and the game politicians played was to get a favorable headline in the latest edition. I remember watching David Garth, the legendary New York media maker (who advised Mayors John Lindsay, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, and Michael Bloomberg), on the phone around 3 p.m. with some tabloid editor, pitching a front-page story and headline for the 4 p.m. edition.
Tabloid headlines, not coincidentally, contain only a limited number of letters, or about as many characters as a pungent tweet, and could be just as memorable (the classic was “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR”). Getting on the front page, Trump said in a 1988 interview with Brazilian businessman Joao Doria, was the secret of political success.
Doria took the point: He later hosted Brazil’s O Aprendiz and is now governor of the state of Sao Paulo, twice the population of New York state. He could even be elected president in 2022.
Tabloid politics flourished in New York up through 1998, when Republican Sen. Alfonse d’Amato overreached in calling Democratic challenger Charles Schumer a “putzhead.” Since then, paid media (TV ads), free media (speeches and debates), and heredity (Cuomos have won five of the last nine governor races) have determined election winners in New York, as in the other 49 states.
What’s odd is that tabloid politics, with their multiple news cycles every day, assumed a volatile electorate, ready to switch candidates because of a single headline, while Trump’s tabloid-like tweet politics have produced surprisingly steady support for candidates.
Within weeks of descending that Trump Tower escalator, Trump led in every primary poll but one. His presidential job ratings and pairings against leading Democrats have remained remarkably similar to his poll and election numbers against Hillary Clinton. Those of us who find his tweets repugnant have difficulty arguing they’re politically poisonous.
The Twitter-era race for the Democratic presidential nomination has been almost as stable. Joe Biden, improbably for a 77-year-old, has remained the front-runner in most polls. Spurts of support — such as the tabloid-headlined spikes of Garth’s clients’ opponents — have quickly appeared and faded: for Kamala Harris in July (this week she left the race), for Elizabeth Warren in early October and, without fading (yet, anyway) for Pete Buttigieg this Thanksgiving weekend.
Trump’s tweets, like tabloid politics in their heyday, partake in New York’s culture of insult, sarcasm, and even cruelty; whining about unfair attacks is for losers. That may be one reason why, in the Democratic primaries, Twitter politics have been better at knocking down candidates — Harris and Beto O’Rourke, as well as Warren and perhaps Buttigieg if he fails to win over black voters — than at boosting them into the first tier. Otherwise, voters seem to stick with their original choices even as insults fly in the Twitterverse.
A test case will come with the candidacy of Bloomberg, who is depending not on tweets or debates or personal campaigning, but on the unlimited supply of TV ads that a man who has made $50 billion can buy. As a longtime New Yorker, and as someone elected mayor three times, he’s not unfamiliar with tabloid wars or politics. But can he play Twitter politics as well?