Our Virtual Primaries

by Jonathan Schell

The Nation magazine, Feb. 7, 2000


As the first voting of the 2000 presidential election approaches, in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, public disinterest is palpable. There is simply no felt need for an election right now. For the most part, people seem indifferent to politics, as they have more or less since the end of the cold war. The fortunes of the Dow Jones average-and, even more these days, of the NASDAQ-absorb them far more than those of Bill Bradley, Al Gore, John McCain and George Bush. If the low turnout in the last Congressional election (36 percent) has not left anyone in doubt about this, two recent polls-one by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, the other by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania-provided some striking particulars, including the findings that 60 percent of the public thinks the campaign is "boring" and that only 12 percent are paying either "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of attention to it. The respondents' level of knowledge about the candidates was on a par with their degree of interest. According to the Shorenstein poll, only 42 percent knew that Bill Bradley was a former basketball star, only 32 percent knew that Al Gore was the son of a senator, only 36 percent knew that John McCain is still a senator and only 12 percent knew that George Bush defines himself as a "compassionate conservative." If the pulse of the body politic's interest in its own activity were to get any weaker, you'd have to ask if the patient was dead.

It is quite different, however, among a more limited group. These are the political professionals, comprising, roughly, the current officeholders, the candidates, the advisers and experts to the candidates, the news media, the lobbyists and fund-raisers in Washington and elsewhere, and other assorted petitioners to power. While the public's fascination with politics has been waning, theirs has been increasing. Although these groups quarrel viciously among themselves, they have nevertheless come to constitute a distinct class. In fact, their extreme partisanship, which seemingly divides them, is one of their class characteristics. It is a characteristic remarkably unshared by the public, which is as little divided politically as it has been in the past fifty years. The impeachment battle last winter was a striking case in point. A matter of obsessive interest to the political class (I have to admit that I was a member of this small minority), it was, after a flurry of prurient interest, serenely disdained by most of the public. Like, say, a power struggle at a Methodist convention, impeachment was of absorbing interest to those involved but not much to anyone else. You might, indeed, regard impeachment as having been a sort of out-of-season election, as if the Washington political class, disappointed that the framers of the Constitution had failed to supply them with a struggle for the White House in 1998 or 1999, had cooked one up for themselves.

This year, of course, the struggle for executive power has been duly scheduled by the Constitution. Yet the gap between the professionals' level of interest and the public's remains undiminished. The professionals began to speak and write about the election in earnest fully three years ago. As long ago as November of 1997, for instance, there was a bout of "mentioning"-and so of anointing- likely candidates for the Republican side. Early in the month, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times visited Governor George W. Bush in an early pilgrimage to Texas and remarked in passing that a "former Bush official" (that is, a former official in the administration of Bush pere) "thinks George W. will be the next President," and threw in for good measure the flattering view that "George W. is more like Reagan than like Bush." Two weeks later, David Broder of the Washington Post, often called the "dean" of columnists, wrote, in an almost bald-faced "mention," that "three years from now, he may have as good a chance at being elected president as any Republican you can name." (In that column, in which Bush is pictured "just back from a run" and is described by an awestruck Broder as "laid back but still very much in command," you can almost see the oil of anointment being poured by Dean Broder's hand upon the pretender's head.) It was around this time, too, that polling began in earnest. A September 1997 Gallup poll of Republicans showed him in first place among GOP contenders at 22 percent, and by February 1998 he was leading Gore in a New Hampshire poll. From then on, his positive ratings continued to rise more or less evenly-figures chewed over tirelessly on the growing multitude of political discussion programs, in which such matters as the "negatives" of candidate X, and the need of candidate Y to "secure his base," and the requirement that candidate Z "build a firewall" in some state or other, were all thoroughly examined. How, we may ask, has this state of affairs arisen? How has politics, which is supposed to be the business of the entire society, become the preserve of a professional class?

The beginning of an answer is that over the past several decades such a development has for the first time become technically possible. In earlier times, if the sap of popular interest failed to rise, the political tree simply drooped or temporarily withered. The Constitution, which provided for direct political participation on election days but not otherwise, left any day-today politicking up to the volunteer instinct. The result was that for most people politics became a steady preoccupation only in times of exceptional turmoil, such as depression or war. Otherwise, the elected representatives were left, by constitutional design, to go about their business with a certain independence. In recent times, however, what amounts to an entrenched new system has grown up alongside the formal constitutional one. Though its consequences for good or ill, which are bound to be great, are not yet clear, its principal elements can be identified. It rests on three legs: media, money and public-opinion polling.

The media are both of the paid and the unpaid variety. It is the need for paid media-above all, for television advertising, which is the greatest expense in modern campaigns-that has summoned forth the huge sums of money whose corruption of the political process is now a prime campaign issue. The money in turn has monstrously inflated the ranks of the army of lobbyists that has descended upon Washington. If the candidates didn't need the large sums of money required for the paid media, they would not need to alter legislation to satisfy the lobbyists, whose influence would correspondingly shrink. The season of paid advertising, moreover, has been extended ever since, in the last presidential election, it occurred to President Clinton's adviser Dick Morris to go on the air with voluminous ads more than a full year before the election. (Industry, too, has been in the political-ad business on its own behalf ever since the healthcare industry's successful advertising campaign against comprehensive healthcare.) As for the unpaid media, anyone who has failed to notice the dominant of the sheer presence of an inflated media establishment on politics has only to attend a political convention. There, alongside the delegates, numbering a few thousand, the observer will behold a fantastic sight. It is the science-fiction-like media city that has sprung up alongside it. Built of a sea of catering tents and other jerry-built contraptions, and all the towers, cables, satellite antennae and trucks of the media age, it supports the journalists and their technical crews, who together outnumber the delegates (who usually have little to decide in any case) by as much as eight or nine to one. Here, the disproportion between what is being "covered" and those "covering" it becomes visible to the naked eye.

The instant media cities are, of course, merely an outcropping of the gigantic industries of the information age-industries as immense and powerful and as thoroughly devoted to their aggrandizement, growth and profit as any military-industrial complex. These are industries, however, that, like the politicians they cover, feed on public attention, and in fact would shrivel without it. To attract that attention, they of course need stories, the bigger the better. An O.J. Simpson trial or an impeachment is to these industries what the B-2 bomber or the Seawolf submarine is to the Pentagon. A presidential campaign, though not in a league with O.J., is nevertheless a major story. Yet herein lies a problem. How, in a political system that provides for a presidential election only once every four years, can the story be sustained in the fallow years-between a Dowd's or a Broder's "mention" and the decision three years later? How can the story develop? What will its events be?

That is where public-opinion polls come in. Their importance is often underestimated. They are commonly seen merely as precursors of elections. It would be more accurate, by now, to recognize them as little elections in themselves. Last year a brief comedy was enacted by the state of Louisiana when it sought to supplant lowa as the first caucus state. Louisiana missed the point. The supposedly first primary is already preceded by any number of other de facto primaries: the Gallup primary, the Harris primary and the Roper primary, to name just a few. Where is Representative John Kasich now? Where is former Governor of California Pete Wilson? Where are George Pataki, Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole? All dreamed of the White House. All strove, to a greater or lesser extent, to get there: All saw their hopes crushed by poll results just as thoroughly as Alan Keyes's and Orrin Hatch's will certainly be by the results in lowa and New Hampshire. Does anyone imagine that these people would have dropped out of the race if, on the morning of the day of decision, they had picked up the newspaper to discover that they had poll numbers on a level with George W. Bush's? Would Bill Bradley's campaign get the respectful coverage it now receives if he had the undetectable support in the polls enjoyed by Orrin Hatch? Would the press attach the word "quixotic" to Hatch as if it were his middle name if his poll ratings were equal to Bradley's?

myth has arisen that the primary campaign is driven above all by fundraising, often called the "first primary." The importance of money in politics-and the importance of getting it out, through campaign finance reform-is decidedly great, and the new parallel system that is growing up around the traditional constitutional one would grind to a halt without it. But fundraising is no more the first primary than is New Hampshire. Consider Bush's progress. His rise in the polls began, as mentioned, in late 1997 (the key event was probably Colin Powell's withdrawal from consideration as a presidential candidate that November). Bush's fundraising didn't begin to show its remarkable success until the beginning of 1999. After eight years of Bill Clinton, the Republican Party above all else wanted a winner. It was Bush's consistently high poll numbers-in match-ups not only with other Republican candidates but, more important, with Al Gore-that identified him as that winner.

Bush had a double advantage in the polls. First, the fact that he was the son of his father the President gave him (or perhaps gave some blurry composite image of father and son) almost 100 percent name recognition-a result other politicians can strive in vain for a lifetime to achieve. Second, his great popularity in Texas gave him a natural springboard to national popularity. Indeed, in the context of modern politics, the old adage that nothing succeeds like success could be rewritten as nothing succeeds like high poll numbers. With these in hand, all good things-money, endorsements, good news coverage (when did you last read about the "stumbling" of a candidate who had just risen in the polls ?) - follow. When Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race, she blamed the influence of money over politics. The more important truth is that she was killed by the polls, in which she remained throughout in single digits. Had they risen above 20 percent, she would have had all the money she needed.

Politicians with low poll numbers like to say that there is only one poll that counts, and that is the poll on Election Day, but they are fooling themselves. If anything, Election Day has become a secondary event, which merely confirms what has been told already by the polls. Of course, if polling were egregiously inaccurate, none of this would be true. But that is not the case. In almost all elections, the final polls tell us, within a few percentage points, what the outcome will be. Elections become the certification that the polls were accurate; in other words, if there were no elections, we'd never know whether we could trust polling.

The elements of the new election system are interdependent. With no television there would of course be no paid television ads. With no paid television ads there would be a greatly reduced need for the immense sums of money. With no need for money, there would be far less opportunity for de facto bribery by the lobbyists. Without the proliferation of the unpaid media there would be no one to discuss the "campaign" for three years before it occurs. Without polling, there would be no events to discuss.

Acting together, these elements constitute an apparatus that keeps the campaign going, with or without the interest or participation of the public. They make possible the politics we have today, in which campaigns are so intensely interesting to a growing political class and so deeply boring to the rest of the country.


Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at The Nation Institute.

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