By Stephen Kimber
January 10, 2008
The U.S. presidential selection process has become a bizarre, Byzantine and peculiarly American system in which a small, unrepresentative sampling of folks from a few small, even more unrepresentative states — with the connivance of a relentless, salivating media pack fixated on their own self-serving dramatic, sun-is-shining-sky-is-falling storyline du jour — do their damnedest to make and break presidential hopefuls.
Last week, that storyline was Barak Obama’s “stunning” victory in the Iowa caucuses. That a black man could win in such a white state became irrefutable evidence of a cataclysmic shift in the American body politic.
“Whatever their political affiliations, Americans are going to feel good about the Obama victory,” opined David Brooks, a conservative commentator writing in the New York Times. “[His success in Iowa] is a story of youth, possibility and unity through diversity — the primordial themes of the American experience… When an African-American man is leading a juggernaut to the White House, do you want to be the one to stand up and say ‘No?’”
The pollsters certainly didn’t. “Obamamania,” they claimed, had created unstoppable “Obam-mo.” Going into Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, in fact, virtually every public opinion poll claimed Obama would defeat his main rival, the once-Democratic heir-presumptive-but-now-suddenly-passé Hilary Clinton. A USA Today/Gallup poll went so far as to report Obama would get 41 per cent of the New Hampshire vote to Clinton’s 28 per cent.
On the eve of the New Hampshire vote, the Los Angeles Times even reported, only slightly tongue in cheek, that Hollywood’s elite, a presumed Clinton bastion, was also planning to cut and run. “On desks all over Hollywood, there's a note this morning waiting to be sent,” it claimed. “‘Memo to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton: We think you're aces. Really. And we love your husband. But we're running off with Sen. Barack Obama. Hope you understand. It's all about being part of history. We'll do lunch after the inauguration.’”
Was Hilary finished? the what’s-it-all-mean TV anchors eagerly asked their commentator-colleagues who, sipping from their own lukewarm bathwater, sagely nodded in the affirmative.
Uh… Hold the memo. History will have to wait.
The new storyline is Hilary Clinton, the “comeback kid.” Remember how her husband Bill Clinton won an unexpected-to-the-pundits victory in New Hampshire in 1992 and revived his own flagging presidential bid. History, the new conventional wisdom claims may now be repeating itself for Hilary.
Barak Obama may have been able to briefly energize the young and the independents, as the bloody-but-unchastened commentators offer up the new reality, but they will quickly fall back into their non-participating stupor, and Obama himself has clearly “not yet won over the solid base of the Democratic party… which does not appreciate and has no intention of being shunted aside.”
Hilary can still win.
Perhaps all of this is inevitable. Back in the sixties when I started following American politics, only about 30 per cent of the delegates to the party’s presidential nominating conventions were chosen in primaries. Which meant that the real news happened in the hothouse of the summer conventions where delegates were wooed and won and lost, and candidates chosen in a few frenzied days of real news.
One of the goals of expanding the primary process was to give the rank-and-file more say in choosing their presidential candidates. Whether having 22 primary states choose 55 per cent of the delegates over the course of a long month-and-a-bit is really more democratic is debatable.
What is not is that this new system has made the conventions themselves dull, antiseptic affairs.
So the media, perhaps not surprisingly, has had to transform each small primary race into the momentous, portentous event of the primary season — until, of course the next one comes along. (It’s worth remembering that, in the primary season so far, only 400,000 Democrats — half of one per cent of the U.S. population — have had a chance to have their say on who should be their party’s next candidate for president.)
The good news for journalists, of course, is that they can’t lose. When they get tired of the storyline of the day, they can always (like me) fall back on that old chestnut about just how bad the media coverage has become.
On Tuesday night, just before the polls closed in New Hampshire, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs announced the results of his program’s daily viewer poll. The question: “Are you tired of the national media reporting on the presidential race in terms of charisma, change, dynasty, momentum and likability instead of the candidates' positions on the issues?” The answer? Ninety-four per cent or respondents, Dobbs reported, answered that question the affirmative.
And then he immediately turned the microphone over to Wolf Blitzer “and the best political team on television,” so they could do it all again.
And so it goes. Until the next time.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College. His column, Kimber's Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.