The short-attention-span generation has birthed the shiny-object election.
The theme of the 2014 midterms — to whatever extent one is discernable — has been an explosion of one crisis after another, each of which demands an enormous amount of media attention before fading for the next one.
From the Secret Service to ISIS, Ebola to immigration, mistreated veterans to Ferguson and race relations, candidates and the president have been forced to react to the controversy du jour.
Strategists and experts say the result has been bad news for Democrats, who have had a tougher time underscoring their preferred campaign messages on their party’s support for women and the middle class.
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“Every time there is a major issue — or as were now referring to everything, crisis — it seems to reverberate on Obama,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “It plays into what was already a sour political mood and compounds it.”
Crisis management has forced the White House to name new czars, fire political appointees and drop bombs, even as Republicans point to missteps as signs of Obama’s weak leadership and the government’s lack of competency.
Vulnerable Democrats are put in the unenviable position of either backing the president or lobbing criticism at their party’s leader.
“It totally threw the Democratic game plan off,” said Princeton University political historian Julian Zelizer. “They wanted to focus on the economic recovery, Republican extremism, and it's hard for candidates to speak about that with these issues coming up.”
Democratic strategists say that their candidates would have been better able to account for crises if they had done a better job organizing around a cohesive message earlier in the campaign.
Jamal Simmons, a veteran Democratic aide, said politicians never “get to choose what the public thinks is important so they must hit the balls that come their way.”
“What makes this cycle seem especially dominated by errant issues is the lack of policy proposals or substantive messages about agendas coming from either side,” he argued. “In campaigns about nothing, election debates tend to be dominated by anything."
There’s also been a shift in media, with even the 24-hour news cycle appearing dated in the era of the internet and social media.
“Part of what’s going on is the way the media works,” Zelizer said. “It’s not necessarily that there’s more issues, it’s the quick attention span media cycle where we move from one crisis to another.”
Still, Fenn says Democrats could have better capitalized on the issues by more proudly stressing their successes — and more aggressively looking to blame Republicans when things went wrong.
Attempts to highlight Republican efforts to cut research funding amid the Ebola scare gained little traction because it did not slide into a preexisting narrative that Democrats had been arguing for months. That’s unlike Republicans, who could point to the infection of two Dallas-area nurses as the latest example of bumbling by the Obama administration.
“Democrats have not at all been aggressive enough going after Republicans on a lot of this stuff,” Fenn said. “I felt the same way after Benghazi — who wanted to cut the State Department's budget for embassy security? Nobody took them to task really for that.”
The panic induced by recent headlines has also tarnished one signature accomplishment Democrats had hoped to highlight in the election — the economy.
The Dow Jones industrial average tumbled nearly 850 points over a single week in the midst of the Ebola scare. While stocks have largely recovered, the stretch deepened concerns about the strength of the economic recovery.
The White House, for its part, shrugs off the “shiny object” syndrome as part of “human nature.”
“We should be focused on the problems because we have a government and leadership in this country that’s focused on solving them,” press secretary Josh Earnest said.
But Earnest did note that previous crises — like the flood of unaccompanied minors across the southern border that dominated attention earlier this summer — were examples of where the administration had worked hard to solve a problem, only to see attention divert elsewhere.
“The president and his administration at the direction of the president comes in and, through a lot of hard work, puts in place a solution. But by the time that solution is put in place, everybody has sort of moved on to something else,” Earnest said.