How a Sam Adams PR stunt changed politics

I was saddened to read a story in the Washington Post this past summer about the shattered partnership of John Heilemann and Mark Halperin of MSNBC, BloombergABC, and Game Change fame.

Because of Halperin’s sexual harassment scandal, Heilemann now refuses to work with his old comrade. This means the two will no longer be able to make assloads of money together being wrong about presidential politics.

Heilemann and Halperin were once an unfailing compass of American conventional wisdom. Whatever was true, they went the other way, and the national press usually followed. They perfected the art of commenting upon their own invented political narratives, a practice that brilliantly allows reporters to write about writing about what they write about.

What made these two pioneers in the hate-media business was the way they fused simple laziness with demeaning caricatures of voters. They enshrined the practice of describing voters as dumb putty in the hands of DC political strategists, and perfected the art of turning one made-up hot take into 18 months of articles, i.e. “Will Romney’s Rush to the Center Succeed?” or “Can Candidate X Overcome [whatever]?”

The ordinary news consumer has no idea how easy this is.

Sure, if you’re covering elections, you can investigate what politicians stand for. You can check who their financial backers are, and ask what that support might be buying, policy-wise. But that would be based on the assumption that audiences are best served knowing the real-life consequences of their votes.

The other route is to just make shit up. Set a rhetorical target, then spend years writing about who is and is not hitting it. You don’t have to move an inch.

Remember the infamous “With which candidate would you rather have a beer?” narrative? It basically got George W. Bush elected in 2000. Halperin and Heilemann didn’t invent it, but they might as well have.

That cliché is probably dead now, since reporters feel guilty about declaring Trump the winner of the “beer test” last time (“Who wouldn’t want to pull up next to barstool with this guy?” asked Slate of Trump in February of 2016). But it spread havoc across five presidential races before hitting the Trump speed bump.

In polls at the start of the 2000 race, voters felt Al Gore would do a better job on virtually every issue, from the economy to protecting Social Security to education to naming Supreme Court judges to managing health care costs.

Bush was really struggling to find an issue to run on that year. Nobody remembers this, but Bush ran as a military pragmatist who would not use the army as global police. Condoleezza Rice at his Republican Convention that year said America’s armed services were “not the world’s 911.” Back then, it was Al Gore who was saying new world realities would demand “we confront threats before they spiral out of control.”

Whether he deserved to or not, there was every indication that Gore was going to win. Then, before the crucial third presidential debate, something happened.

A beer company, Sam Adams, commissioned a poll: Which candidate would you rather sit down and have a beer with, Bush or Gore?

By three points, 40-37%, Americans decided they’d rather have a beer with a recovering alcoholic than Al Gore.

That’s right: this madness began as a publicity stunt by a beer company, looking to latch on to debate coverage as a way to score free PR.

Reporters loved the innovative poll. The “beer test” became shorthand for something they’d struggled over the years to articulate.

For decades, we’d run presidential candidates through humiliating marathons, making them divulge embarrassing family secrets on afternoon talk shows, trade scripted barbs with Lettermans and Lenos, and mock themselves on comedy shows like Saturday Night Live. We wrote seriously about all sorts of things they did that had nothing to do with being President, but answered a lot of questions about their cravenness and their willingness to jump through media hoops.

We also systematically removed issue politics from races and gradually degraded the office, training voters to think of presidential candidates as boobs who would do whatever reporters asked of them. They were like contestants on loony Japanese game shows of the Takeshi’s Castle type, the ones that had morons gleefully diving face-first into rivers of mud while wearing Hamburger Helper costumes.

The big prize was the beer test. By 2004 the major news organizations were regularly commissioning this poll as a serious indicator. Bush walloped John Kerry that year in a Zogby re-hash of the Sam Adams quiz, winning with 57% of voters. A tradition was born. 

Reporters love the beer test because it’s a way of making elections about something other than politics. It’s also a great way to make elections about us.

No crowd of millions ever banged down the door of Time magazine and demanded, “We want a president who’s a good beer companion.”

No, that idea came from a beer company, and reporters just happened to like it. It appealed to our caricatured idea of voters as brainless goons who can be trained to pick politicians using the same marketing techniques we use to sell soda or breakfast cereals. With tests like this, we never had to write about the policies.

This is an excerpt from the latest installment of The Fairway: Thirty Years After Manufacturing Consent, How Mass Media Keeps Thought Inbounds. To receive every chapter as it’s published, as well as full access to the already-published The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing, subscribe now for $5 a month or $40 a year.