Michael Barone / Dec. 6, 2019

Twitter Politics’ Roots in Tabloid-War Politics

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.

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 race since the nominating rules were changed, back 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 Donald Trump’s use of Twitter, which is often lamented and sometimes effective, and occasionally backfires. 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 helped elect former Mayors John Lindsay, Edward Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg), on the phone around 3 o'clock with some tabloid editor, pitching a front-page story and headline for the 4 o'clock edition.

Tabloid headlines, not coincidentally, contain 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 was later host of Brazil’s “O Aprendiz” and is now governor of the state of Sao Paulo, which has twice the population of New York state, and could be elected president in 2022.

Tabloid politics flourished in New York up through 1998, when then-Republican Sen. Alfonse d'Amato overreached in calling Democratic challenger then-Rep.Charles Schumer a “putzhead.” Since then, paid media (TV ads), free media (speeches, 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 its 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. Former Vice President Joe Biden has remained the front-runner in most polls, improbably for a 77-year-old. Spurts of support — like the tabloid-headlined spurts of David Garth’s clients’ opponents — have quickly appeared and faded for Sen. Kamala Harris in July (this week, she left the race) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in early October; and have appeared without fading (yet, anyway), for Mayor Pete Buttigieg this Thanksgiving weekend.

Donald Trump’s tweets, like tabloid politics in its heyday, partake of 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 has been better at knocking down candidates — Harris, Beto O'Rourke, Warren and Buttigieg, if he continues to fail to get perceptible support from black voters — than at boosting them up 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 Michael Bloomberg, who’s depending not on tweets or debates or personal campaigning but on the unlimited supply of TV ads a man who has made $50 billion can buy. As a longtime New Yorker and three-time mayor, he’s not unfamiliar with tabloid-wars politics. But can he play Twitter politics as well?

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