A Terrible Tie

October 31, 2008

By Stephen Noriega

This could possibly happen, so I’m going with it in my election predictions. It would be tantamount to betting that the top three horses in a race will fall but I think the odds are actually better than that. Due to some unusual provisions in our Constitution, this election could result in an Obama / Palin Administration. Don’t batter me with hostile question marks and laughter, yet.

McCain could surge and wins every battleground state except Colorado, Pennsylvania and New Mexico (and he has a great reputation for comebacks). The Bradley Effect could help him in certain states like Virginia, Ohio and Nevada. Voter suppression efforts could help him with North Carolina and Florida. Colorado and New Mexico have filled with liberal migrant voters and are turning blue. Pennsylvania has Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to make it safe for Obama. This would result in a 269 – 269 tie.


So, per Article II of the Constitution, the choice for President goes to the House of Representatives. Each state has one vote in this procedure, so states with more of one party will vote along those party lines. Currently, there are 27 states with more Democrats in the House of Representatives, 21 states with more Republicans and 2 that are tied. Thus, Obama would win that vote and would become the 44th President.

However, it is not the House of Representatives that decides who is Vice President. It is the Senate. Per the Twelfth Amendment, each member of the Senate gets one vote to decide the V.P. Currently there are 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans in the Senate. One person, Bernie Williams, would vote for Biden. One Independent, Joe Lieberman, may vote for Palin as he has campaigned for the Republican ticket all along. This would result in a tie in the Senate. Guess who breaks ties in the Senate? That’s right, Vice President Dick Cheney would break the tie and Sarah Palin would be the choice.

I know there are variables even within this probability nightmare. Chuck Hagel, an occasional Democrat sympathizer could swing the vote I the other direction. Joe Lieberman might decide to abandon his love of Republicans once his friend McCain is no longer the winner.

Naturally, this scenario is remote from its inception. However, it sure is wild to even see it as a possibility. Remember, the last time there was a tie in our obsolete Electoral College, a similar coupling resulted and our first Treasury Secretary was shot to death by said Vice President (Aaron Burr) over it! Duels are illegal now but what a sitcom to have Barack Obama and Sarah Palin trying to run a country together.


My Friends, My Friends, My Friends

October 8, 2008

By Alicia Long

There were high hopes for last night’s debate between Senator Obama and Senator McCain.  With Obama widening his lead in the polls (his current lead is around 4-9 points nationally), McCain really needed this debate to help him turn the trend back into his favor.

The high hopes that McCain fans had for this second debate were justified.  Late last year, McCain had all been counted out in the race for the Republican ticket.  Some blogs even had reader polls as to when McCain would drop out (The Right’s Field had the longest running poll on this topic).  But McCain fought his way back using town hall-style meetings with thousands of New Hampshire residents all across the Granite State, and ultimately winning the January primary and rocketing his way to the Republican nomination.

Town hall meetings are McCain’s favorite way of communicating with voters, and he typically does very well in this format.  Many politicos felt that since the second presidential debate was a town hall, McCain had a good opportunity to reignite his campaign.  Unfortunately, he did not succeed.

I’m not saying McCain didn’t do well.  In fact, both Obama and McCain did well in this debate.  The popular opinion amongst the talking heads was that McCain needed this debate to be a game changer –  he needed to make a strong, new attack against Obama, or Obama needed to make a big gaffe – neither of which happened.  Both candidates stuck to their tried and true tactics and nothing really happened that made the performance of either candidate stick out.

This is not good for McCain.  This debate retained the status quo for voters, so one could argue that Obama “won” the debate.  Not because he did anything special or made better points than McCain, but simply because he came out of this debate the same way he came in… ahead in the polls.

CNN analysts thoroughly picked apart the debate last night.  This group is informative because it is compromised of Democratic and Republican analysts, as well as non-partisan journalists.  Overall, they rated Obama with a “B” and McCain with a “C.”  You can read more about their individual grades and opinions HERE (you can also give your personal grades through CNN’s online poll).

Just to mix things up a bit, I created tag clouds of Obama and McCain during the debate.  These tag clouds visually represent the 40 most frequently used words, with the biggest words being used the most frequently.


Visually, Obama definitely kept to the issues that are strong for him.  Health care, energy, and change were among the topics he kept bringing up.  Amusingly, the word he used most was “going.”


One thing I am not surprised to see in McCain’s cloud is the word “friends.”  I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say “my friends” so many times in 90 minutes.  This is something he says frequently in his town halls, and last night was no different.  However this came off as less of a personable remark and just became annoying after the first half hour.

Thanks for reading my post, my friends.

Surviving the Rock Star and Not Beating up the New Kid

July 29, 2008

Stephen Noriega – The McCain Beat

John McCain has a bit of a paradox to swim through if he wants to become president. McCain finds himself running against a historical, charismatic, symbolic candidate. This presents a multidimensional challenge in terms of McCain being able to frame himself and frame Barack Obama. McCain must avoid the pitfalls that come with campaigning against an attention machine. He must also avoid being so rough on Obama that he becomes defined as a bully. McCain needs to know that voters are willing to dislike the rock star but if we feel sorry for them, we back them up whether they deserve it or not.

First, the rock star hurdle must be cleared. The evidence is clear that Obama is a phenomenon, drawing hundreds of thousands of cheering people in Germany, waving American flags. When was the last time that happened without divisions of American soldiers marching in the streets or supporting airlifts there? The answer is never.

All of this comes through the media. The Internet obviously loves Barack Obama and prefers to make fun of McCain. More pictures can be found like the two below than the reverse.

This clip from Hardball illustrates the visual and psychologically symbolic difference between Obama and McCain.

Inspite of that, Obama only received a bounce in the polls to approximately 48% to McCain’s 40% after his Audacity of Yes We Can 08 World Tour. This number actually fell one percent according to Gallup (http://www.gallup.com/poll/109126/Gallup-Daily-Obama-48-McCain-40.aspx ). As it turns out, Americans don’t follow the European lead when it comes to presidential politics. If that were the case, Ralph Nader would not be running only because he was term limited!

McCain can take advantage of this by sticking with his agenda and framing himself as the candidate who did not need a tour of our battlefields because he had been there many times. He did not need a trip to Europe because Europe does not elect our president or help us much in the Middle East. McCain is very strong in the “town hall” environment. He is a good sparring partner. He makes gaffs and factual mistakes but they are often in smaller venues and his willingness to take unscripted questions gives him forgiveness in this area. Obama is already the better coliseum orator. No reason to fight him there. Fight him among the American people, in the veterans’ halls and the converted square dance auditoriums and even the college campuses. This is where McCain can punch and punch back. Obama, expected to be elegant and articulate all the time, can only make blunders and look less ready for the pressures of the Presidency.

Not Beating Up the New Kid

McCain and his campaign committed an error by energetically firing off juvenile criticisms of his apparent patriotism and travel itinerary. Let the public in America feel unimpressed while you focus on how the surge in Iraq has worked, how you want to ease the pain at the pump on so forth, Senator McCain. By talking about Obama not visiting wounded troops, the McCain campaign opens itself up to looking ugly and desperate. First, because the facts are wrong (Obama did visit wounded troops). Second, these tactics appear like nervous salvos thrown at an opponent, creating sympathy for Obama. Third, it’s too early! Most people are finishing off their summer vacations, and thusly worried about gas prices. More people are thinking about the 2008 Olympics and Academy Award implications for the Dark Knight right now. Any creative and successful harpooning of Obama may very well go unnoticed and wasted until at least the party conventions.


John McCain should not “approve this message”.

A very wise professor once said that one of the best ways to get elected is if the voters feel sorry for the candidate. This is true. Many felt that Bush’s election somehow became more solidified the more that Hollywood mocked him. Senator Hillary Clinton seemed to gain strength in her bid for political office after Rick Lazio stepped to her podium with a piece of paper. It was over the top and seen as bullying. Hillary won the seat after being neck and neck with Lazio up to that debate. Anyway, my money would have been on Hillary if it spiraled into fisticuffs.

-MSNBC, 2000

McCain needs to keep it in mind that Americans love the underdog more than the rock star. This is not to say that McCain can not state differences in philosophy or criticize Obama. He can and should. However, he should give little attention to his ability to draw crowds, perhaps even complimenting him for that. Then he should turn around and nail him for wanting to raise capital gains taxes, on his mistaken assumption that more U.S. troops would not work in Iraq and other weaknesses. McCain did not help himself with the statement that Barack Obama is willing to “lose a war to win a campaign”. The commercial blaming Obama for higher oil prices also worked in the opposite direction. They are too aggressive at this point and they give the rock star the underdog title as well. Obama is too vulnerable in other ways to try the straight negative approach. McCain needs to keep his charming side to the public. He needs to nurture that part of him that is humorous (no gorilla rape jokes!) and attentive to people’s concerns. This is definitely something he can do. He can attack Obama on the validity of his policy arguments. He needs to stay away from phrases like, “The audacity of hopelessness”. They might be funny. I even chuckled. Then I thought, “Does that make McCain anti-hope?” In these hard times, the Straight Talk Express needs to include some hope. If McCain’s campaign does not realize this, he will frame himself as the angry old bully and Obama as the good new kid.

Ron Davis, The Satirical Political Report, 6-20-2008

Advise to McCain

So if I were advising McCain, I would tell him to lay off the new kid. Argue with him within the environment of policy and experience. Do not become desperate because of his youthful popularity. It has not translated into a gaping poll chasm yet. McCain’s numbers continue to be extremely friendly considering the widespread anger with the Republican Party. Stay with the policy program, go to as many town halls as possible and let the rock star perform at as many stadiums as he wants. Very few rock stars have been elected to political office, and if they did win, their opponents were probably too mean to them.

A Pro-Obama Media?

July 28, 2008

“The Biblical term for it is ‘Deliverance,’” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in commenting on the Obama campaign. “We are being picked up and taken where we want to go…”

While Matthews is among the most dreamy-eyed of journalists in his thrilled obsession with Obama, there are many other journalists claiming a widespread pro-Obama sentiment in the media. Consider the following sampling of journalists commenting on the “Obama-love” of their peers:

“The media’s love affair with Barack Obama is all consuming…” — Joe Scarborough

“The feeling most people get when hearing a Barack Obama speech is…I get this thrill going up my leg, I don’t have that too often…” — Chris Matthews

“I must confess my knees quaked a bit…” Lee Cowan

“Its more than love, it’s the kind of love that anybody whose been a ninth grade boy understands this species of love. I think about you when I go to bed, too embarrassed to stand up, its sealed with a kiss love” –Tucker Carlson

Following in the steps of a famous Saturday Night live spoof of the media’s pro-Obama bias, the McCain camp has recently released its own humorous montage of “Obama-moments” in the starry-eyed media. Enjoy them both…

Saturday Night Clip


McCain Camp “The Media Loves Obama” video

Is the hype real? Are media commentators and reporters truly obsessed with covering Obama, and is their coverage slanted in favor of Obama? What do the answers to these questions teach about how the media covers elections?

Evidence of Obamania in the Media

There is good evidence that stories focusing on Obama have received more air and print time throughout the election than stories focusing on McCain. The non-partisan Project for Excellence in Journalism tracks a wide range of media stories in its “Campaign Coverage Index,” and in every week since the race has narrowed to McCain and Obama, they have found substantially more stories focused on Obama than on McCain. In mid-July, they offered the following coverage chart, and reported that

“Obama was at least a significant presence in fully 77% of the campaign stories studied, compared with 48% for McCain. Obama has led in coverage in all five weeks since the race narrowed to two presumptive nominees. A week earlier, that gap narrowed to 11 points and offered the prospect that the coverage might equalize, but last week suggested that might not be the case.”

Another study, by the Tyndall center reporting the same kinds of findings—discovering three times as many broadcast minutes dedicated to Obama than to McCain stories in the weeks after the primary season ended.

Is More Coverage Better Coverage?

Obama receives the lion-share of media attention, it’s true—but is that necessarily good? The media is known for their penchant for scandal, for their obsession in discovering flaws, conflicts, and contradictions, and then exposing them to maximizing drama and attract viewers. Perhaps much of the coverage on Obama is actually negative—obsessing with such things as Obama’s alleged radicalism, his race, rumors of his Muslim/Madrassa background, and his political inexperience?

There is a sense out there that the media is slavishly pro-obama in their bias. Rush Limbaugh, for example, makes it part of his daily fodder to berate the Obama-love in the air—though relying on Limbaugh as an expert in media balance is a bit like consulting the Flat Earth Society for directions on your upcoming “round-the-world” cruise.

“The Soviet leaders from Lenin and Stalin all the way up to Brezhnev and Gorbachev, they never got this kind of fawning press from Pravda and they owned it. I mean, they wrote their own press and they didn’t get this kind of good coverage. The Beatles never got this. Princess Di never got this…The Drive Bys have arrested development. They are just a bunch of teenagers here. The only thing they haven’t done is throw their underwear and bras at the guy when he’s up there on stage, yet.” –Rush Limbaugh, on Obama’s favorable press coverage

It’s early in the game, and beyond these kinds of general impressions, there is very little way in the serious scholarship proving whether the media coverage, overall, is biased towards or against Obama. What scholarship there is actually suggests that Obama has perhaps received more negative, rather than positive, coverage from the press.

Here’s an L.A. Times story, summarizing recent findings from a well-respected university media-research center.

“The Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, where researchers have tracked network news content for two decades, found that ABC, NBC and CBS were tougher on Obama than on Republican John McCain during the first six weeks of the general-election campaign.

You read it right: tougher on the Democrat.

During the evening news, the majority of statements from reporters and anchors on all three networks are neutral, the center found. And when network news people ventured opinions in recent weeks, 28% of the statements were positive for Obama and 72% negative.

Network reporting also tilted against McCain, but far less dramatically, with 43% of the statements positive and 57% negative, according to the Washington based media center.”

And what about that data from the Project for Excellence in Journalism which showed that Barack Obama received substantially more attention from the media than did McCain? Well, it turns out much of that attention might actually not be so great for his campaign. The Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that most of those Obama stories were centered on an obscene Jesse Jackson quote criticizing Obama for “talking down to Obama,” and threatening bodily harm. Two other topics taking up a lot of Obama air-time were documentation of Obama’s evolving/changing positions as he moved to the “center” in order to win the presidential election, and stories focusing on the Clinton/Obama divide in the party. Issue coverage of the economy and Iraq also made an appearance, but they did NOT drive the coverage. It’s not at all clear that obsessive coverage of issues like campaign gaffes, party division, and issue “flip-flopping” helps the Obama campaign. Remember the media pack journalism frenzy over the Reverend Wright comments damning America? Surely, Obama wished the media did not focus so heavily on him and his reverend during those days.

But all of these studies are early, and there is no denying the sense out there that the media coverage is indeed pro-Obama. The American public certainly thinks such a bias exists. In a Rasmussen poll, 49 percent of respondents believed reporters would favor Obama in their coverage this fall, compared with just 14 percent who expected them to boost Sen. John McCain. So let’s just assume that there is a love affair with Obama among the nation’s journalists, and that they are delivering obsessive and pro-Obama slanted coverage this summer.

What might account for such a result?

Answer 1: Liberal Bias

One of the most common answers, certainly the answer given by conservative journalists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, is that the media is “liberal” and is biased in favor of Democrats. Political Science textbooks will tell you that allegations of liberal media bias have become staple fare among conservatives, ever since the 1960s. But are the allegations true?

Here are some relevant facts (found in Government in America by George Edwards, et. al., and The New American Democracy, by Morris Fiorina, et. al.)

  • A L.A. times study in the 1980s found that reporters were twice as likely to identify as liberal than were members of the general public.
  • A 2002 survey of 1,149 journalists found that 37% identified as Democrats—only 19% said they were Republicans.
  • Opinion polls show that journalists are substantially to the left of the general public on social and cultural issues—and they are far more likely to take the “Democratic” position on such issues as abortion, gay rights, gun control, religion in public life, and drug laws.
  • Since 1964, more than 80% of the nation’s journalists have voted for the Democratic nominee in every presidential contest (including Republican blowouts like Nixon over McGovern in 1972 and Reagan over Mondale in 1984).

It is undeniable that the nation’s journalists tend to be more liberal/Democratic than the populace at large. But does that influence how they present the news? Does a Democratic reporter necessarily have to produce pro-Obama coverage? Here’s how a set of leading political scientists address that question.

“The vast majority of social science studies have found that reporting is not systematically biased toward a particular ideology or party. Most stories are presented in a ‘point/counterpoint’ format in which two opposing points of view (such as liberal versus conservative) are presented, and the audience is left to draw its own conclusions.” — George Edwards, et. al., Government in America, p. 231

Regardless of this evidence, not everyone agrees that the biased background of reporters doesn’t matter. CBS news reporter Bernard Goldberg claims that overall reporting topics and framing of issues is undeniably slanted by the cosmopolitan big-city environment in which most reporters live. He asks: “Do we really think that if the media elites worked out of Nebraska instead of New York; and if they were overwhelmingly social conservatives instead of liberals…do we really think that would make no difference?” (George Edwards, et. al. Government in America, p. 232).

Before a final word can be given on whether today’s media is pro-Obama obsessed or not, we will need more campaigning, more coverage and more serious scholarship. The bottom line is informed opinion is divided on whether the media is pro-Obama or not, and on whether it matters.

Answer 2: The Kennedy Factor

Another commonly cited reason for the media’s (alleged) pro-Obama slant is “the Kennedy Factor.” Many media pundits long for the charisma, the romance, and the wordly charm of the old Kennedy days—and in Obama, they see today’s young Kennedy rising again. Consider the following example, posted on various website, including the media research center and newsbull.com

To mark the 40th anniversary of Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s death, Good Morning America’s Claire Shipman filed a fawning report on Thursday in which she compared Barack Obama to RFK. Splicing together footage of Kennedy and Obama, Shipman noted the “similarities” and nostalgically declared: “The search to shift that mantle, futile of course. But also a quintessentially American desire for, if not a happy ending, some sense of completion.”

At the top of the segment, Shipman cooed: “Even 40 years later, most Democrats can’t utter the name ‘Bobby’ without a wistful, ‘what if’ sort of reverence.” A true enough statement, but considering that the rest of the piece was all about Kennedy’s greatness, what does that say about the people who produced the segment? An ABC graphic cheered, “The Vision of RFK: Honoring an American Legend.” Shipman then proceeded to make her comparison clear:

SHIPMAN: Landmark crowds, striking charisma, a focus on healing the divide. [Video of Obama and RFK cut together.]

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us, our house must stand divided.

BOBBY KENNEDY: This election will mean nothing if it leaves us, after it is all over, as divided as we were before it we began.

See the full transcript here, or here.

Along this vein, Any Youtube search will turn up dozens of clips of Obama himself referring to his desire to take up the Kennedy mantle. Those clips even include one featuring Caroline Kennedy (JFK’s son) and Ted Kennedy (JFK and Bobby Kennedy’s brother) claiming that Barack Obama is the candidate to help people:

“Over the years I have been deeply moved by the people who have told me that they wish they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way they did when my father was president….hopefully there is one candidate who offers that same hope and inspiration…” — Caroline Kennedy, President John Kennedy’s daughter, endorsing Barack Obama for President

“Every time I have been asked over the past year who I would support in the Democratic primary, my answer has always been the same…I’ll support the candidate who inspires me, who inspires all of us, who can lift our vision and summon our hopes and renew our belief that our countries best days are still to come. I have found that candidate….It is time now for a new generation of leadership. It is time now for Barack Obama.” –Senator Ted Kennedy, President John Kennedy and
Senator Robert Kennedy’s brother, endorsing Barack Obama for President

Answer 3: Covering the Real News

A third reason for the tilt towards Obama in the media coverage (though not a reason for the alleged pro-Obama slant in that coverage) is that media outlets are simply covering the news. It is a fact that the Obama campaign is a ground-breaking, historic campaign. This is the first time a black man has won the nomination of a major party, his candidacy was an unpredicted underdog victory over the establishment candidate Hilary Clinton (who herself represented historic change, which could only double the interest in the Clinton/Obama contest and its eventual outcome), and his campaign has fueled a record-shattering surge of new and young voters across the nation. The fact is that the Obama campaign is NEWS, and it is no surprise that the media outlets cover it.

For his part, McCain has been on the public stage for decades—he simply cannot represent fundamental change or news in the same way the newcomer Barack Obama can, and especially since McCain is generally running to continue much of the legacy of the incumbent. Newcomers and challengers commonly receive more attention than old-timers and incumbents—the news, after all, tends to cover what is new.

When we are faced with the historic nature of the Obama campaign, and with truly newsworthy events by the candidate such as a trip to meet various world-leaders, while the McCain camp tours small towns in America, it is natural that Obama receives more coverage, says Bob Friedman senior vice-president of ABC news.”what are we supposed to do, go gin up some story about McCain to get some rough equality of airtime?” he said. “I don’t think so.”

NBC news president Steve Capus agreed. “We’re just trying to do our jobs. There’s no question that there’s great news value in Sen. Obama’s trip overseas. That’s why we are doing this.”

Other respected news figures such as Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour reiterates this opinion that the coverage of Obama is driven more by the newsworthy events that the Obama campaign is involved in (such as foreign trips and policy announcements) and the newsworthiness of Obama himself, than by some kind of inappropriate bias on the part of the media.

Public Desires and Pack Journalism

A final answer to “why all the coverage of Obama” relates to the phenomenon known as pack journalism. The fact is that the media is a business, with different operations like CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC and all manner of smaller outlets driven by the profit-motive to cover the kind of news people like to see. Competitive pressures to drive up ratings and secure viewers relates to the phenomenon known as “pack journalism”—which simply means that media outlets tend to obsess on the same or very similar stories day after day—stories that are proven winners in bringing in viewers and readers.

If stories about Obama gain more viewers—than journalists will “pack” around those stories, knowing that this is the only way to remain competitive in the race for ratings, advertising dollars, and (ultimately) survival as a media outlet.

The media wolves pack around popular stories, and the numbers don’t lie: Barack Obama is a popular story. The Rolling Stones March 2008 Obama cover was the magazine’s best seller of 2008, selling 40,000 more copies than usual for a month (about 25% more than normal). Some sales figures are mixed, and an Obama cover story is not always a ticket to rising sales, but more often than not, a focus on Obama results in a popular monthly magazine. Here’s how Conde Nast reporter Jeff Bercovici describes the numbers:

The Atlantic also scored big with its December issue, whose cover story was an Andrew Sullivan essay on “Why Obama Matters.” That issue, which sold 73,500 copies, was The Atlantic‘s best seller of the year, performing 28 percent better than average.

Three men’s magazines have put Obama on the cover so far. Men’s Vogue saw the biggest lift. Its Sept. 2006 issue sold 129,582 copies, the second-highest total for any issue so far, after only the debut issue, which was on newsstands considerably longer. GQs Sept. 2007 issue sold a little better than its average for the period, at 245,105 copies, but 12 percent less than the year-earlier issue, which featured Clive Owen.

Newsweek‘s July 16, 2007 issue sold 124,290 copies, putting it among the top-selling single-week issues of the year. And Time‘s Oct. 23, 2006 cover, “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President,” was the title’s second-best selling issue of the year, with 206,000 copies.

If it’s true that the media’s Obama obsession stems first and foremost from the public’s media obsession, it should fundamentally change the nature of the critique. In a free market economy, its hard to blame businesses for giving the consumers what they seem to want. When the public’s appetite for Obama coverage wanes, we can expect that media outlets (which are well attuned to which stories win the most viewers) will tilt their coverage elsewhere.

Obama versus Obama

Does any of it matter? Does it matter if Obama receives more media attention than McCain—and does it matter if that coverage is positive or negative? There have been many studies on the abilty of media coverage to influence or determine the mood or votes of the public—and the scholarly consensus is fairly strong. Scholars tend to pool around what is called a “minimal effects” school of thought when it comes to evaluating whether the media can shape public opinion. Media coverage cannot fundamentally change people’s opinion about issues, and the tone of coverage cannot determine nor much influence how people are going to vote. There are much stronger influences on people’s voting patterns, including the actual issues themselves, the strength of the candidates, and party identification. Media coverage is WAY down the list of factors influencing how someone is going to vote.

Still, scholars have found that although media coverage cannot fundamentally change how people think about things, media coverage does tend to have an effect in helping voters determine which issues are most important in their vote (in other words, which issues are most “salient”), and in helping voters decide how to “frame” the issues and their vote. In other words, the media coverage is unlikely to fundamentally turn a conservative voter in to a liberal, but unrelenting media coverage of Obama and his health care plan could help determine that most voters were highly focused on whether then liked or disliked Obama and his health care plan when they actually voted. Media coverage can help determine whether an election is mostly about McCain and his war record, threats of Middle East terrorism, or Obama’s Iraq plan—though the coverage can’t tell voters how to think about each of these issues.

To that extent, the media’s undeniable bias towards covering Obama might mean that this election will ultimately come down to a referendum on Obama, more than being a “choice” between Obama and McCain. When they pull those levers, voters might more than anything else be thinking about whether they are excited or terrified by the idea of an Obama presidency, and the answer to that question is likely to shape the results of the election. But again, it should be pointed out that the media reporters and executives didn’t force this Obama referendum on the American people—voters themselves, through what they read and what they are talking about, seem to have declared that 2008, more than anything else, is about how they feel about Barack Obama.

Yes We can? Or No We Can’t?

Call and Response: The President and the People

July 11, 2008

During my hiatus of a summer teaching engagement in Berlin, Barack Obama secured the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. I took the occasion to send an email to an old friend, who now worked training dogs to work with immigration control agents.

Here’s what I wrote: “How about Obama? These are wondrous political times to be living through. America is possibly on the verge of a Black president, who seems a bit like the second coming of JFK?! We are in for a hell of a ride, I tell you.”

My dog-training friend responded as follows: I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm regarding politics. I wouldn’t call it wondrous, more like something I stepped in at the Canine Center. Don’t put Obama on such a high pedestal, the fall hurts more.”

The Political Times Versus the Political Candidate

I have thought a lot about that email exchange in the last few days, as it gets to the very core of what Obama’s presidency might mean for America. It is vital to begin by clearly stating that my friend’s response missed the fundamental point that I was trying to make in my email. My email was not meant to suggest that Obama himself, nor his politics, were wonderful and energizing. Rather I was trying to say that the political times seemed to be wondrous and full of portent. My email was not praising person, Obama, nor putting him on a pedestal, but rather was celebrating the current mood of the country, and the way that Obama seems somehow connected to a deeper force moving through the people. There is a distinction between

1) the goals and ideas of a specific candidate, and

2) the deeper mood and desires of the people themselves who become inspired by a candidate,

It is that distinction that raises some interesting points about the role of a President is, and about the relationship between a democratic president and the people he ostensibly “leads.”

America’s Political Times: 1960s Redux?

Now this may all seem rather mysterious, so let me be more clear about what I call “a deeper force moving through the people.” Here are some facts about today’s deeper force. About 4 million new voters have already voted for their first time in the 2008 Democratic primaries—a record-shattering number. Hillary Clinton, the clear front-running establishment candidate in the Democratic primaries, was upended by a completely unpredicted surge of anti-establishment and passionate Democratic voters. These activists exploded onto the political scene in a cacophony of “new voter” projects and similar innovations across the blogosphere that are redefining how Americans communicate and network. Many of these new voters and blogosphere dwellers are young—part of the surging generation of “Millenials” (18-29 year olds) who are now the largest demographic in American history and who are just now coming into their own politically (see previous posts of “The Obama Generation” and “Millenials Rising”). With the rise of this demographic, the center of gravity in American politics has shifted downwards—towards a younger, fresher, more energized electorate than we have seen in decades.

It is the convergence of these varied new forces that have upended American politics and put the nation on the verge of electing not only its first Black president, but also one of its youngest presidents, and one who hails from a grass-roots community organizing background to boot. Something unusual and dramatic is brewing, and one cannot deny the powerful youthful energies surging through the country, whether or not one supports the Obama candidacy. Support it or not—it represents something real and meaningful moving through the American electorate.

What may be happening is perhaps not so different than what happened in America in the 1960s. In the 1960s America also witnessed an exploding youth generation (The Baby Boomers), a surge in civic activism, and a youthful president (Kennedy) who symbolized and energized youthful energies across the country. If we are repeating some of those historic patterns, Obama, like Kennedy, can be seen as less of a directive leader, who will govern America with a specific platform and agenda from above, and more of a energizing catalyst, who will influence America by inspiring passionate and unpredictable political forces in the broader community. Obama in this way is not so much offering America a specific platform and set of policies but is rather offering Americans a way to buy into and become part of a growing sea of social movements and community organizing projects surging in their communities. Some people may be unnerved by this growing wave of new voters and community activists–asking “Who are These People, Anyway?”–but there is no denying they are here, and they are fired up.

Experience a bit of the mood of it all in these two videos.

People have become inspired by the Obama campaign, by its invitation to people to organize their own events and community organizing teams, and by the way it has inspired millions of young people to directly involve themselves in politics teams (remember the famous “Yes We Can” video? It was created independently of the Obama campaign).

Letting the Political Genie Out of the Bottle

Where will it all go? That won’t be up to Obama. As president Obama might serve as a catalyst for community activism—but he won’t be its director and will not be able to direct its course.

In this, too, it’s not so different than what Kennedy faced. When Kennedy was elected as a representative of a surging youth movement, and when he gave his famous inaugural calling on Americans to step up, get involved, and “ask what you can do for your country,” he could not have predicted the forces he was helping to set into motion. In fact, he was inspiring forces like James Farmer, a leader of the new Congress Of Racial Equality, who (in the words of Kennedy’s biographer) “had been inspired by Kennedy’s words about change and freedom. He was convinced that this new President wanted to end American segregation” (see Richard Reeves, President Kennedy, Simon and Schuster, p. 123). And so Farmer worked with others to organize dramatic civil rights protests, such as the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses deep into the south, knowing that they would face violence and police riots. Farmer was certain that the President was with him…so he did it.

Kennedy might have believed in ending segregation, but the record shows that he DID NOT support direct political action such as Farmer’s civil rights protests in order to speed desegregation along. It didn’t matter. Across the country people, especially young people, had been inspired by the IDEAS and SPIRIT that Kennedy represented, and they were on the move—with or without their president. As the Freedom Riders and other civil rights protests took off in the 1960s, Kennedy was worried that they were pushing too far, too fast. He called his political advisors and said “Can’t you get your goddamned friends off those buses? Stop them!” (Reeves, p. 125). But nobody could stop the growing tide of activism—not even the president who helped inspire it. When Kennedy’s advisor called one Freedom Rider and asked her to slow it down, she replied that “nothing could stop them now. We’re going to show those people in Alabama who think they can ignore the President of the United States” (Reeves, p. 126).

Here’s how Kennedy’s biographer, Richard Reeves, describes the president’s response:

“The President they were quoting actually wanted them to go back home, and did not understand the reach and resonance of his own owords. People were listening to him in a way they listen only to a president. The country was moving again. Kennedy would have to catch up or try pt stop this parade….The travelers on the road to freedom were not listening to the [President’s Advisor’s] words. They thought they had heard John Kennedy’s music.” (134).

Citizen Direct Action: The Coming Storm

This phenomenon is exactly what I referring to in my email to my friend. Across the nation, young voters and community activists are hearing Barack Obama’s music, and responding to the “reach and resonance” of his words. Radio shows are filled with community organizers talking about how they have built an organization of activists through Obama’s campaign, they have built connections between people, and how they intend to stay organized and active even after the election.

In Denver, one Obama organizer on the July 10th KGNU radio show “Swing State” was asked:

“What will it mean to have organized all those people and created all this energy, after the election? What will happen after the election? Will Obama just expect all these people to go home, so he can govern?

She answered: “What we hope to happen is a critical mass of organized people who will be able to hold the next president accountable to their values and goals. Community organizing gives people the tools, so they are not just individuals cheering for a political team, but are organized activists, working together to make things happen.”

This kind of language suggests a storm of community action to come, whether Obama wins or not, and whether he supports the coming storm or not. The Obama campaign has resonated in the people and catalyzed a broader movement—and in this, the power of the presidency is revealed to be far greater than often discussed in America’s classical founding documents and in the textbooks.

Presidential Powers Reconsidered

Certainly most of America’s Founding Fathers did not see the president as a catalyzing agent of broad social movement. The Framers’ Federalist Papers on the subject of presidential leadership generally describe the president as a fairly weak and detached leader, responding to the initiatives of Congress, and certainly not firing up the people with calls for direct action. The Framers didn’t imagine a president with the kind of resonating and emotional connection to the people that some modern presidents seem to have represented.

Still today, the modern textbooks tend to miss something about this role of the President. Review political science textbooks and you will find a great deal of attention on the powers of the President— and these powers (such as the veto power, personnel appointment powers, the power to speak to the public on TV, etc.) are seen as something the President uses to achieve his agenda, to move his policies through Congress, and to bring the nation together around his priorities. There is rarely attention to a different kind of power and role of the President—the power to catalyze a national mood (as Reagan arguably did in the Conservative 1980s) and the power to energize social movements that fundamentally transform the country (as Kennedy did in the 1960s). And there is no attention to the way in which the people can use the presidency and its evocative powers to advance the people’s agenda, the people’s policies, and the people’s priorities.

These kinds of populist powers inherent in the modern presidency are slippery in that they aren’t fully “under the command” of the President, and they often inspire actions far beyond the control of the President–but they are true and real powers of a president and his campaign, nonetheless, these powers to evoke and powers to call forth.

What we are seeing in 2008 is the mysterious unfolding of a new surge in democratic activism, and this surge cannot be separated from the Presidential candidate whose “music” has inspired the hopes of so many. No one knows where it goes from here—and that is what I meant when I wrote my friend that we are living in wondrous political times, and in for a hell of a ride.

The Two Americas Duke it Out in the Democratic Primaries

April 24, 2008

Image: Chad Crow, Wall Street Journal

The Pennsylvania Primary: Urban vs. Rural Once Again?

The results from Pennsylvania are in, and its déjà vu all over again. In round 12 of what looks to be a 15 round split-decision boxing match, Obama did well enough to maintain his substantial lead over Hillary Clinton in the delegate count, while Clinton did well enough to support her argument for going forward into the next primary battles (North Carolina and Indiana in two weeks). The closely divided battle grinds on, and except for more bloodied lips all around, not much looks different than it did six weeks ago , after Ohio and Texas.

And something else in Pennsylvania looks very much like it did six weeks ago, in Ohio and Texas—the geographic breakdown of the vote itself. A stark and undeniable division has emerged among Democratic primary voters, and although Obama likes to talk about how we are “one America,” more united than divided, that’s not how America seems to be voting. In fact, Americans are clearly divided in their voting. There are a variety of divisions that could be highlighted: white versus black, young versus old, college-educated versus not. But one of the most significant divisions of all is the geographic division vividly evident in a large number of Democratic primary states—urban versus rural.

Barack himself commented on this very division in his famous “bitter” Americans commentary of a few weeks ago. Speaking at a fund-raiser in big-city San Francisco, Obama was asked why he had such trouble in rural areas like small-town Pennsyvania. Obama’s reply and its fallout dominated the media for a full week:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration…And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

Whether Obama was right or wrong in his exploration of the motivations of small town voters, he was certainly correct to suggest that something is very different about the values and voting habits of small town and big-city America. Those very real differences show up in state after state, as Obama and Clinton capture almost equal shares of a fundamentally polarized Democratic electorate.

The fact is that very few counties in the Pennsylvania primary were closely contested. The counties tended to be blowouts for either Obama or Clinton—with urban Philadelphia going for Obama 65%-35%, while rural counties averaged a mirror-image 66%-34% Clinton edge. Michael Barone of Newsweek notes that

“In 53 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties there was more than a 20 percentage point difference between the two candidates. In only one county — Montgomery, a suburban county northeast of Philadelphia — were the two candidates within five points of one another. Nearly 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s Democratic voters lived in counties where Obama and Clinton were separated by more than 20 percentage points.”

Urban Pittsburgh did indeed vote for Clinton, but in general in the this year’s primaries, the more urban a county, the more pro-Obama it has voted, while rural areas have been Clinton’s base. “The farther you travel from large cities, the greater the vote for the New York senator,” Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder. “The Democratic Party may be divided between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but it’s divided rural and urban, too.”

The Urban-Rural Divide in Election Maps

In addition to Pennsylvania, the urban-rural polarized pattern has replayed in vital states like Ohio, Missouri, and Texas. The rural-urban divide is abundantly evident with a look at some election maps (taken from CNN’s election center).

Consider this map of Pennsylvania election results. Obama’s vote is concentrated in the urban Philadelphia area, while Hillary sweeps the rest of mostly rural Pennsylvania.

The results were similar in Texas, where Obama won urban centers like Austin, Dallas and Houston, but lost across vast rural swaths.

In Ohio Obama won the four large urban centers of Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, while Clinton swept the small towns and farmlands.

And consider this map of Missouri that I produced myself. In this map, the height of the blue bars indicates the size of the vote victory in each county. The blue bars are Obama counties, and red are Clinton. Though Obama narrowly won Missouri, he only did so by racking up a massive vote victory in urban St. Louis, while Clinton won much smaller vote victories across the rest of mostly small town Missouri.

A Historic Divide Evident in the 2004 Presidential Election

This pattern isn’t always the case (for example, Obama won Colorado, including many of its rural counties quite handily,while Clinton has won some urban centers like Pittsburgh), but it is generally and increasingly true. The pattern is hardly surprising to observers of American politics—the rural/urban divide goes back to the Federalist/Jeffersonian division of the early 1800s, it was evident in the Jacksonian revolution in the 1830s, it was the centerpiece of the great WJ Bryan/Warren Harding battles of the 1890s, and it was replayed recently in the Bush/Kerry election of 2004.

Consider for example, the urban-rural divide as displayed in these maps of the Bush Kerry election. This first map shows popular vote margins, with the larger margins shown with larger bars. Blue bars are for Democrats, red are for Republicans. The map reveals just how concentrated the Democratic vote is in large urban centers, and how dominant the Republicans are across rural America.

The USA today map below reveals the same pattern, but displayed a bit differently.

The Two Americas: Real and Enduring

When a political division is replayed throughout 200 years of American history, when voters line up in landslide proportions behind different candidates based on their urban or rural place of residence, when dozens of political election maps reveal clear and bright demographic dividing lines—it is no stretch to say that there really are “two Americas.”

Of course, this divide is about much more than simple rural or urban geography—it is about an entire host of values and demographics that go with this divide. Rural voters in fact tend to be different in a wide variety of ways than urban voters (for example, rural voters are more likely to attend church regularly, to be married with children, to be white, and to own a gun). Political observer Michael Barone has argued that these differences have profound and enduring political consequences, which is why the Democratic primary is a re-staging of America’s long “tribal war” between “Jacksonians” (who tend to be more rural, less educated and less affluent) and the “Academics” (who tend to be urban, college-educated, and more affluent).

As another angle on the two Americas, consider this chart that I put together based on U.S. Census data and polling data from the Zogby polling company. It shows the very real differences between “red states” (which tend to be more rural and to vote Republican) and the “blue states” (which tend to be more urban and to vote Democrat).

There really are “two Americas.” These two nations fight it out every year in presidential elections, with the familiar results of Republicans tending to win over heartland rural America and Democratic dominating the cities and the coasts. This time around, the two nations are duking it out for control of the Democratic party itself. Two great tribes, closely divided, are lining up behind two historic candidates, each of titanic strength and locked in a kind of death grip, neither able to fully claim title to the soul of a divided nation. “We are all one nation,” Obama tells us over and over, but for all his talk of something new, something united, and something beyond the political divisions of old, the electoral fracture lines growing up around him look hauntingly familiar.

Millennials Rising: The Challenges of a New Politics

April 8, 2008

Obama For Yo Mama

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Youth Movement: A New Political Majority?

Move over Baby Boomers—the largest American generation in history is moving onto center stage. Born in the 1980s and 1990s, the Millennial generation is approaching 30 million eligible voters in 2008, and will make up 30% of the entire electorate by the presidential election of 2016.

Observers Peter Leyden and Ruy Texeira conclude that members of this younger “creative” generation are now larger than the Baby Boomer generation, are more engaged than young people of previous generations, are significantly more Democratic in their voting patterns and are “a hugely disruptive force in politics.

Already no generation is able to compete with the Millennials for sheer size, their political influence will grow in the future as they grow older and vote more regularly, and we are already seeing them flex their political muscle in their surprisingly high turnout levels in the 2008 primaries and in catapulting Barack Obama to presidential front-runner status. Just like when the Baby Boomers began to hit their prime in the 1960s, changing American society forever with their demographic weight and young energy, American politics may be in for something of a youth movement in the decade to come.

Overturning the Conventional Wisdom about Youth Apathy

Such predictions run counter to standard lessons in political science texts of recent years. More often than not, textbooks have highlighted the declining influence of the younger generation, based on such data as persistently low turnout rates and political interest levels among 18-29 year old voters. One leading (and representative) political science textbook by George Edwards, et. al., (Government in America) highlights the substantial political knowledge and voter turnout gaps between 18-29 year olds and voters over 65, and concludes that:

“Fewer young Americans are heading to the polls compared to previous generations…even the most pessimistic analysts could not have foreseen the record-low participation rates of young people in recent years…It has become particularly difficult to convince a generation that has channel surfed all their lives that politics really does matter.”

But 2008 seems to be putting an end to all that old conventional wisdom. The youth vote in the primaries is at an all time high. The Cornell Sun reports that

“According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Living and Engagement (CIRCLE), youth participation in the New Hampshire primary rose sharply — jumping to 43 percent in 2008 from 18 percent in 2004 and 28 percent in 2000. A similar trend was apparent in the Iowa caucuses as the youth turnout rate rose to 13 percent from 4 percent in 2004 and 3 percent in 2000, and in Florida, where the youth turnout rate of 13 percent more than tripled the 2000 rate. In South Carolina, the number of young voters tripled from the 2004 election as well.”

Results from Super Tuesday states and beyond are continuing this same pattern. : Youth turnout is tripling and even quadrupling in numbers, compared to the 2000 primaries.

Youth voting patterns in 2008 are no fluke. Turnout among 18-29 year olds was up dramatically in both 2004 and 2006. If the patterns from 2008 primaries continue through the fall election, youth turnout will have grown three elections in a row. Overall youth turnout in 2008 may end up being close to the highwater mark of 55% set in 1972, the year 18-21 year olds first obtained the right to vote; such a result would require a rethinking of all those poli sci textbook conclusions about the apathetic and declining youth vote.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Changes…”: A New Political Culture?

“Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?” Singer Cat Stevens asked this question to the baby boomers of his time, when they were upending the world in the 1960s and 70s—it is a question that has become important once again.

As the millennials become a driving force of politics, what will they give us this time?

One thing they are giving us is a new form of political communication and a new political culture. Heavy on the internet and on the do-it-yourself videos of Youtube, and light on television news, the millennials are constantly introducing new forms of political communication and different ways to taking on old political issues . Morley Winograd and Michael Hais call this process the “Millennial Makeover and attribute it with reshaping American politics from top to bottom, in a profound repudiation of the angry and overly-ideological battles of previous years.

Here’s how the Winograd and Hais describe the “Millennial Makeover,” in a Washingpost Post essay.

Millennials’…aren’t confrontational or combative, the way boomers (whose generational mantra was “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) have been. Nor does the millennials’ rhetoric reflect the cynicism and alienation of Generation X, whose philosophy is, “Life sucks, and then you die.” Instead, their political style reflects their generation’s constant interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of “friends” on MySpace or Facebook, about any and all subjects, increasingly including politics. Since they started watching “Barney” as toddlers, the millennials have learned to be concerned for the welfare of everyone in the group and to try to find consensus, “win-win” solutions to any problem. The result is a collegial approach that attracts millennials to candidates who seek to unify the country and heal the nation’s divisions.

Unlike the young baby boomers, millennials want to strengthen the political system, not tear it down. According to a study last year by the Pew Research Center, most millennials (64 percent) disagree that the federal government is wasteful and inefficient, while most older Americans (58 percent) think it is. A 2006 survey by Frank N. Magid Associates indicated that millennials are more likely than older generations to believe that politicians care what people think and are more concerned with the good of the country than of their political party.

Maybe it is just something of this kind of spirit that lies behind the popularity of that “Yes We Can” Obama video—which spread like a super-virus in the days after its release on Youtube.

We also see some of the surprising power of the rising Millennial generation in the Democratic primary. It is the rising youth voter that has turned the Democratic primary upside down, with Barack Obama upending presumed nominee Hillary Clinton on the strength of his massive victories among the under 30 year old voters (Obama typically posted a 10-30 point victory among these voters in Super Tuesday states) . It is these same voters who see Obama as “one of us,” and who may be poised to give America its first black president.

A black president??? Yes. What would be shocking to their parents seems natural to Millennials. The page may be turning in American politics. While John McCain represents an older generation, the generation that fought in Vietnam and battled bitterly over race and feminism in the 1960s, the youth of today have their own war, and their own stand on race and gender that has little to do with those old battles. As Harvard’s Elaine Karmarck notes, “Millennials are the most racially diverse and racially integrated generation in American history. They are civic-minded and post-partisan…They are inclined to cooperate, not fight.”

Karmarck is right to a point. Millennials may not appreciate some of the political bickering of their parents’ generation, but let’s not kid ourselves that the rise of the Millennials will be all kindness and light. The reality is that Millenials certainly have their own values that they are willing to stand and fight for—and these are values that are likely to change American politics in profound ways. This upcoming generation has profoundly different views on Iraq, global warming, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, and economic issues than middle aged and older voters, who tend to support Republicans–and these values are likely to result in a coming political upheaval as the political clout wielded by Republicans since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan is wrested from their hands.

According to a Democracy Corps poll, “young Americans have become so profoundly alienated from Republican ideals on issues that their defections suggest a political setback that could haunt Republicans for many generations to come.” . Indeed in the last two presidential elections, and in 2006, Democrats beat Republicans in the youth vote by 10% to 20%. Things don’t look to get better for the GOP in 2008: a recent Rock the Vote Poll notes that “just 28% of young voters identify themselves as Republicans versus 47% who identify as Democrats.”

The Millennial Challenge: The Great Education Gap

For all the talk of the Millennials rising, there is a deeply disturbing fact about young people’s voting patterns: they are deeply divided, in terms of political participation, between those who have attended college and those who haven’t.

In the 2008 primaries, 1 in 4 of college attending young voters voted in the primaries, while only 1 in 14 of non-college attending youth voted. Non-College attending young people make up 50% of the Millennial Generation, but only about 20% of its voters.

Forget the Generation Gap in voting rates—the real participation gap is between those attending college (and presumably on their way up, in terms of their personal prospects) and those who are not attending college (and presumably facing a much more difficult personal future).

As NPR reports, many of these non-college youth are personally turned off by American politics: they are deeply pessimistic about their futures, but they don’t see any way that politicians will ever do anything to help them. This cannot be a healthy path to the future—current patterns point to an even more harshly divided nation of the politically powerful and personally optimistic, and those who have politically checked out and who are facing a dismal future without college education nor political allies.

The Millennial generation is at the heart of this deepening divide, and as they come to take over political power, how they address and overcome this division will be a test of their vision and ability to leave the nation better off than when they ascended to power. Forty years ago, the youthful Kennedy challenged his Baby Boomer generation to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”—and the Boomers responded with historic civic action to address fundamental challenges such as the racial division of their time. Todays Millennials, standing on the cusp of power, face very real and very deep challenges and divisions of their own—it is their own high school friends, brothers and sisters, who are increasingly checking out of the political system and being left behind in America’s new economy. Clearly, Cat Stevens’ question is as important now as ever: “Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?”