April 5, 2007
Media and money on the campaign trail
Last Friday night I attended a reading by an author whom I’ll leave nameless for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that he writes for publications that would not be keen on his being connected with anything overtly political, and I’d just as soon not get him in trouble. (And by “overtly political” I mean this blog, not the piece that he read, since the former is current and the latter described events in the past.) Not that I imagine enough people read this blog for it really to matter, but still, better safe than sorry, eh? Anyway, the article he read discussed the work he did for the Howard Dean Presidential campaign in 2004. He described a moment soon after the Iowa caucuses, when the yelp heard ’round the world was being played repeatedly on television. A staffer lamented that after all the work they’d put in on the campaign, that yelp was going to be what people remembered. And, indeed, that’s a large part of what I remember about the Dean campaign. I remember, of course, that Dean seemed promising at first, but he still didn’t seem to me to stand out from the pack in any particular sense. After that yelp, I more or less forgot about him, at least as far as the campaign was concerned. The article went on to describe the tenacity of the campaign staffers, and the fact that Dean didn’t bow out of the race until after he’d lost in Wisconsin, which I hadn’t known. I suspect that in the eyes of most Americans not directly involved in the campaign, Dean was done after Iowa.
Furthermore, I’ve seen for myself that the MSM is more interested in showcasing the things candidates do that are “newsworthy” (check out the JibJab vid at Gristmill) than in discussing where candidates stand on a variety of issues. Does the average person remember what Bill Clinton did in office apart from his activities with Monica Lewinsky? How many more times do I have to see Rudy Giuliani in drag, or “M.C. Rove” doing his thing? Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton (and Bill Richardson as well, but I’ve heard less discussion of him in this regard) don’t look like the traditional presidential candidate, and while I think that’s exciting in terms of the advancement of women and minorities, it saddens me that their physical differences receive so much more attention than their actual politics.
Returning to Friday’s reading, the author mentioned that much of his job involved writing e-mails asking supporters for money. As much as those e-mails might have differed from traditional fundraising letters, as much as Howard Dean might have differed from other candidates, that’s what much of the campaign came down to: money. The campaign ended less because Dean wasn’t winning primary elections than because they were out of money, and while the two are certainly connected (who wants to give money to a candidate who isn’t winning?), it still strikes me as representing a larger problem. It also connects back to media: the more money a candidate has, the more exposure he or she can get.
Those, then, seem to me to be the foundation of any Presidential campaign that stands a chance: media and money. The issues come in at a distant third, and even then a candidate can’t really stand too far apart from the pack in terms of the issues or he or she will risk being considered unelectable. The prevalence of the media in the twenty-first century means, in theory, that the average voter can be more informed about both candidates and issues. However, I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually the case. Furthermore, is the relative uniformity of current Presidential candidates caused by the MSM, or is it the result of trying to have a representative democracy in a country of 300 million people (or is there another reason altogether)? Would things improve if the U.S. shifted to publicly funded elections?
I don’t have any guesses. What say you?