Monday, March 3, 2008

Even Rhode Island

It was evidently a cold evening. Bill Schneider, CNN's top political analyst, stood before an unfamiliar skyline wrapped in an overcoat, covering his expansive bald head with one of those Russian-style fur hats. The coverage bounced between Schneider and some woman looking very warm and comfortable reporting from somewhere in Texas. It took a second to realize that there was really no reason for Schneider to be standing outside while discussing the upcoming Democratic primaries. Most every building in Providence, Rhode Island, does, after all, benefit from some form of central heating this time of year.

There was, of course, nothing remarkable about a news organization asking one of its stars to suffer for the sake of a forgettable establishing shot of an unrecognizable city. That is simply life in a visual medium. Instead, what was remarkable was the fact that the network had actually set up shop, at least temporarily, in Providence, of all places. When was the last time anyone remembers a news story coming out of Rhode Island? The 1938 hurricane, maybe?

I thought about this as I watched panel after panel of pundits, all enjoying the warmth of an indoor studio, carry on about how Hillary Clinton ought to drop out of the presidential race for the good of the Democratic Party. I mean, how could anyone be that stupid? This is the best thing that has happened to the Democrats since Dick Nixon decided to burnish his legacy by taping all White House conversations on a machine that apparently lacked a pause button.

Ask any campaign manager what matters most in an election, and you will almost always hear the same response: mobilization. Candidates win when their voters are motivated enough to show up at the polls; they lose when their supporters stay home. They key, then, is to find a way to excite the electorate, to get them engaged and keep them interested.

In most presidential election years, this is a difficult task. Everyone gears up for the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, and then a few more key primaries draw everyone's attention, but typically things peter out quickly after that. One candidate takes a commanding lead and everyone just sort of stops caring. The campaign continues, but nobody pays attention. The presumptive nominees make a few perfunctory appearances, but the press corps dwindles and the audiences thin. An election that is uncompetitive is also uninteresting.

As a result, voters in most states typically receive scant attention from the presidential candidates. Their own primaries come and go, usually marked by low turnout and negligible enthusiasm. By the time September rolls around, the parties' main task is to rouse the citizenry from a six month slumber and motivate them to care about the upcoming balloting. This is not so difficult, perhaps, in the Electoral College swing states that will dominate the fall campaign. But in the deep Red and Blue states, where the final outcome is already predetermined, it is hard to make anyone listen.

On the presidential level, this may not matter so much. Rhode Island, for example, will support the Democratic candidate in the general election whether statewide turnout is 30% or 60%. Nevertheless, the race for the White House is not the only matter to be decided on Election Day, and the stakes are often very high in races for Congress, state legislatures, and other important offices. Below the presidential level, split ticket voting occurs even in states that may seem hopelessly one-sided. Nebraska has a Democratic U.S. Senator; Hawai'i has a Republican governor.

Nobody expects the Democrats to win Texas in this year's presidential election. But the fact that Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and an army of supporters are currently crisscrossing the state in search of a primary victory may well pay dividends down the road. There are tight House races in the Lone Star State this year, as well as a faint hope at flipping control of the state legislature, and an even better prospect, especially as Texas grows more Latino, of electing still more Democrats in the future.

The enthusiasm generated in March, 2008, will almost certainly stir lasting interest and activism in some Texans who might otherwise have remained disengaged. They'll remember the time that a former president came to Amarillo, or that comedian George López traveled to El Paso, or that actor Samuel L. Jackson showed up in Tyler (the latter two in support of Obama). Some will stop caring as soon as the cameras and celebrities depart, of course, but others will be hooked for life.

If you talk to people you know all across America—not just the politics nerds, but everyone else—you'll hear an unprecedented level of excitement. My state actually matters this year! I got to see an actual presidential candidate, or, in some case, a real live former president! In terms of motivating an electorate to come to the polls in November, that experience alone has to be the equivalent of fifty high school civics classes or a few thousand public service announcements.

The Democrats, of course, look to be the big beneficiaries of all this newfound engagememt. The GOP race has been, for all practical purposes, settled for about a month now, and it is clear that John McCain is largely going through the motions. Indeed, about the only way he gets any attention at all these days is when he clumsily tries to insert himself into the Democratic race by taking a potshot at Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

If anything, the Democrats should hope for a Clinton sweep of Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island tomorrow. If they keep the race going, they can add Oregon and North Carolina and Pennsylvania to the list of states that will feel the rush of adrenaline as the spotlight finally turns to them. This can only be good for the party. Why is that not obvious to the talking heads on TV?

I know that the Washington insiders enjoy fretting about the damage done by the increasingly angry war of words between Obama and Clinton, but they worry too much. First, the rhetoric has been far less bitter than what we've seen in previous races. Second, it benefits both Democratic candidates to deal with a taste of what they will face from the Republicans in the fall. Had John Kerry had a significant challenger in 2004, he might have been sufficiently toughened up to answer the Swift Boat Liars eventually sent his way by Karl Rove and the GOP hit machine.

Anyone who thinks that the past two months have been bad for the Democrats understands nothing about politics and voter mobilization. Exciting campaigns are a good thing, even when they get a little nasty. Indeed, I have one prediction: if, in late April, we see Bill Schneider in his silly fur hat framed against the skyline of Pittsburgh, commenting on another close-fought battle between Hillary and Barack, then the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, will beat John McCain handily in November.

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