Sunday, January 27, 2008

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.

If …..

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

This election emerging as a generational tug-of-war


This is proving to be a campaign of epic generational divides.

Two combative, tested political veterans emerged as winners in New Hampshire, the 70-year-old former POW, John McCain, and the former First Lady, Hillary Clinton, always fond of talking about her 35 years of public service. They won impressively, both rising from premature wakes – for McCain in July and for Clinton following her Iowa defeat last week. (So much for real reporting by political correspondents on the ground.)

This was just Round 2 of what could be races close enough to carry right through to the summer conventions. While exit polls in New Hampshire showed a sharp split between men and women on the Democratic side, something that had not occurred in Iowa, it also showed an equally remarkable split on the continuum of generation – something that did take place in Iowa as well. Barack Obama resounding won the under 40 vote. Hillary Clinton resoundingly won the over 65 vote. The rest leaned toward Clinton, too.

On the Democratic side from here, this campaign will pit age, experience and traditional partisanship against youth, exuberance and the poetry of the possible. Clinton promises to fight the tough fight, to hold the line rather than try to draw new ones, to deal with whatever comes her way “from Day 1.” She also likely use a bit of Bushian "be afraid," as she did the day before New Hampshire when she told The Boston Globe that a terrorist attack could follow the election as it did in Great Britain.

Obama promises a different vision – for the young, for the under-represented, for the collaborative of mind, for the world. He is both suave and passionate, speaking of a less combative framework for solving the country's and world's problems but then exhorting his followers with the chant "I'm fired up. I'm ready to go."

A similar age divide on the Republican side could emerge in the weeks ahead. McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, different men with different styles, nonetheless will all campaign on experience and toughness against terrorism. (McCain can add honesty, not always the mayor’s or Romney’s strong suit). Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, already is emerging as the Republican who appeals to the younger, poorer and more disenfranchised Republicans. He’s shown a sense of humor, stresses his poor roots and hasn’t shied from criticizing his president and party.

True, Huckabee won Iowa on the backs of evangelicals, and he is a man who readily and happily wears God on his sleeve. But his appeal will reach beyond the God groupies to those seeking a Republican candidate with an easier, more human approach.

Which side will win? I don’t know, though California is shaping up as the key state on the Democratic side.

One thing I expect to hear a lot more of in the weeks ahead is the weary Bush rhetoric of "be afraid." I hope America’s response is, “No, but you should be afraid instead.”

Friday, January 04, 2008

A different 'tude for 20-something America?

This blog appeared first on


As the big-time political pundits pick over the point spread and exit polls of the Iowa caucuses, they eventually will stumble upon what I consider the most interesting story there: The re-emergence of engaged young adults.

The statistics on the Democratic side are nothing less than startling. According to CNN’s exit (and entrance) polls, Barack Obama took 57 percent of the 18- to 29-year-old vote compared to 11 percent for his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. He took 41 percent of the votes of first time caucus goers, a dozen points more than any of his rivals. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee outpolled Mitt Romney nearly 2-1 among the youngest group of voters.

Even considering all the caveats – a caucus draws far fewer voters overall than a primary and Iowa is a small place to begin with – these figures suggest something is stirring out there.

“The huge difference was that we had the greatest organization ever built in this state,” Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, told The New York Times. “And it was built on the backs of idealistic kids who came in here not just because they believed in Obama, but they wanted to change the course of history and the world.”

Passionate youth are nothing new to politics. Just four years ago, the tech savvy Deaniacs ushered in the era of big-time online fund-raising and this election cycle Ron Paul’s kiddie corps has harvested millions. But translating the passion to votes is another matter. Just ask Dean. In Round 1, anyway, Obama converted the passion to action.

If he continues to succeed at this, his story may yet be the biggest since two brothers named Kennedy crashed the political scene in the 1960s. That’s because, at least on the surface, it is irony, not hope, that has characterized my children’s and students’ generation.

Forgive my narrow-mindedness. But it seems their biggest contribution to American culture to date has been one word -- “whatever.” My two daughters wielded it with such wicked delight in their teens that it made me secretly want to throttle them. Now my peers and I use it regularly as well.

Barack Obama’s message is the antithesis of “whatever.” He is a man who prides himself in his capacity to engage anyone, friend or foe. (His father, he writes, did the same.) He is, he tells followers at every opportunity, “fired up, ready to go.” With his big ears and slightly goofy smile, he is the antithesis of cool, the geeky guy who in the end turns out to be cool because he so isn’t.

But perhaps, as with all political movements, in the end it’s not merely about the man, not about his call for change, not about the ascendancy of a new, race-neutral political America. Perhaps this time, "it's the voters, stupid."

Certainly the sweep of Obama’s support in Iowa, driven by young, single, first-time caucus goers, at least suggests that in this deconstructionist, create-your-own-reality, there-is-no-truth era of deeply cynical politics and personal life, idealism is showing signs of a comeback.


No. Make that, I hope so.