Democratic Primaries 2008: Two narratives, two different winners?
Quick: Which of these two is true?
One: Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina is one more marker of a sharp generational divide in the Democratic Party this presidential primary season, with Obama consistently swamping Sen. Hillary Clinton among 18- to 30-year-olds and Clinton consistently out polling Obama among the AARP set.
Two: Sen. Barack Obama was swept to victory in South Carolina on the backs of black pride, taking four of five African-American votes in a state in which half the Democratic voters are black.
The answer, of course, is that both are true. But which one the news media chooses to emphasize could in the end play a significant role in determining who wins the Democratic nomination this year. The race is that close.
That’s right: The press, long a kingmaker and not merely a bystander in presidential politics, has a particularly sensitive and influential role in this election in how it interprets the numbers and to what extent it reports rather than merely echoing campaign spin.
Fascinating stuff. So let me weigh in early in an effort to influence that decision: Barack Obama’s strong victory among young voters is not a one-time phenomenon. It happened in Iowa. It happened in New Hampshire. It happened in South Carolina. And like it or not, despite the best efforts of the Billary Clinton campaign to churn the issue, race wasn’t even a factor in those first two largely white states. Or, as James Carville might say (were he not backing the Clintons), “It’s the generational divide, stupid.”
First, some context. That the media does more than “report the news” in presidential politics is not news. It became clear again this week when the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that Clinton (first) and Obama (a close second) had each received roughly five times the press coverage of former Sen. John Edwards, the third Democrat left in the race, during the week of Jan. 14 to 20.
Given that Edwards lagged behind the other two in voting in the first two contests (though he did barely edged Clinton in the Iowa caucuses), one could ask, “What came first, his poor showing or the poor coverage?” But most of this survey was taken before Edwards disastrous showing in Nevada. And he most assuredly received far more than one-fifth the vote of either Obama or Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire combined. So I would say the press wrote him off early – and that his later poor showing in part reflects that decision.
I don’t believe this was out of malice or a plot to kill a populist’s campaign. No, the news media merely love a good story, and Edwards gets in the way of the first serious woman presidential candidate and the first serious African American presidential candidate going head-to-head. That’s why so many of columns posted on political blogs have been filled with headlines such as “Is America Ready for a Woman or an African-American first?”
There is a better and more honest story line here. This is a campaign between the past and the future, between an earnest warning that Americans need experience (35 years worth “from Day 1”) and a call for change and hope and government that can cut across party division. It is a campaign between managed, pragmatic government and the poetry of promise, the rhetoric of common good.
Yes, American Democrats have a clear choice. It is, increasingly, a choice between two candidates who offer compellingly different visions of governing. One happens to be a woman. The other happens to be black. (As a footnote: I believe John Edwards also offered a compelling candidacy with his call for economic populism and the forgotten working class. But the news media never gave this message the attention they should have.)
The story line and the fault line between Clinton and Obama is generation, not gender. It’s the different visions of different age groups, not race. It has to do with how the American people want to be governed in the years ahead.
This story line, too, is well-supported by an analysis of the voting, if the pundits only open their eyes. Three remarkable things beyond Obama’s overwhelming support among African Americans emerges from the South Carolina returns and exit polls. The first is that Obama alone received more total votes than were cast for all candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary. That’s right. In 2004, Democrats cast 294,000 votes. This year Obama alone captured a thousand more and the total Democratic vote topped a half million.
The second is that 100,000 more South Carolinians voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary in a state that has been absolutely rock solid Republican in national elections for a long, long time.
And the third is that Barack Obama, according to exit polls, captured two-thirds of the vote of those under age 30 – including 52 percent of young white voters. (Clinton it turn captured 40 percent of all the over 65 votes.) It is this generational divide, its ability to lure new voters to the poll and the strong but contrasting qualities of these candidates that should be the dominant focus of news commentary between now and Feb. 5.
For those pundits interested in the easy way out, in endless ruminations about race and gender, listen to the words of Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president, who, in Sunday’s New York Times, endorsed Obama.
She wrote: “Sen. Obama … has built a movement that is changing the face of politics in this country, and he has demonstrated a special gift for inspiring young people – known for a willingness to volunteer, but an aversion to politics – to become engaged in the political process.”
If the press plays it straight and at least gives equal weight to this thread of the choice before voters, the Democratic primary should stay very, very close clear into the spring.