Thursday, November 6, 2003

Democrats shouldn't limit primary debates

Democrats shouldn't limit primary debates: Here is my latest column on the move by some to limit the number of candidates involved in the Democratic debates.
With less than three months until the first presidential primary votes are cast, Democratic insiders and the mainstream media have started their pathetic practice of deciding which candidates are "electable" and who should have a seat at the debate table.
In an editorial in New Hampshire's Concord Monitor last week, the newspaper cited low ratings and "tedious sniping" as the reason "drastic changes" were needed in the debate process. Of course, the newspaper ignored the fact that all the debates so far have been broadcast on cable news channels and C-SPAN, cable-only stations which historically garner low ratings. Then, there was Donna Brazile, Al Gore's former campaign manager in 2000, who said, "It's time for the rubber to hit the road. It's time for some of the candidates to stay home." Brazille - who is black - wouldn't name names, but it was very clear from her comments which candidates should not be included in the debate: The lower tier candidates which include the only two black candidates and the true peace candidate. Strangely, Brazile is chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Voting Rights Institute - a group that is supposed to be promoting choices and participation.
How is that for hypocrisy?
For political junkies like me, this behavior by the media and bigwigs at the DNC is not a surprise. Throughout the history of the modern political era, insiders and the media have manufactured frontrunners to make politics easier to digest. By first establishing a tier system to rate the candidates, the media and insiders control the process a year before even the first debate.
There are several factors in deciding who a top tier candidate will be. One is a candidate's ability to raise scads of money. In election after election, campaigns have become obscenely expensive. In the past, all a candidate needed was a million or two and the commitment of some important party activists. Nowadays, $5 to $10 million a quarter has to be raised in order to win what some are calling "the invisible primary." The cash is then used to bombard the voters with manipulative ads. In order to get the money for the ads, the candidates have to lean on the moneyed interests within the party. It also helps to curry favor with the Washington media establishment so the same interests know you're working to be taken seriously.
After the tier system is created, the media can then ignore the lower tier candidates and spend all its time emphasizing the handful considered "electable" by the cocktail crowd. Essentially, the political pundits make the decision for you - by judging who can win and who can't - before a single vote is cast.
Isn't that nice of them?
These electable candidates will then get the majority of coverage from the big newspapers, national magazines, and major television networks, while the other candidates struggle to be heard. This lack of coverage can be the death of a lot of campaigns since most voters have other things to worry about than candidates in a final election a year away. But similar to the logic that "early money is like yeast," free media - especially during presidential campaigns - is one of the only ways a campaign can reach the voters in the very early stages of a candidacy. Being able to participate in the debates is essential.
Complaints by the media and the insiders that debates are too crowded are not unusual. In 1992, there were six Democratic candidates involved in the early debates and that was too many for some of the insiders. In 1988, seven Democrats participated in the debates and many candidates lasted until the Super Tuesday primaries. In 1984, as many as eight candidates were on television in the debates.
Republicans also have a history of crowded presidential debates. In 2000, as many as nine candidates participated in the primary process before a few candidates dropped out. Former-Ambassador Alan Keyes - a black Republican - was allowed to participate in all the debates even though he didn't have a chance in hell of winning the presidency. In 1996, nine candidates participated in the debates and the media didn't say a thing.
The logic of limiting participation in the debates is that only the "winnable" candidates would be allowed. But with that logic, only one candidate should be allowed to debate since there will only be one winner. As well, the insiders are selling many of these candidates short. Gore's campaign was probably one of the worst run campaigns in the history of the party, all the more reason not to listen to cranks like Brazile. But almost all of the states he won in 2000 will probably be won by most of the Democratic field. This means that the nominee really only has to win one southern or Midwestern state in order to galvanize enough Electoral College votes to beat President George W. Bush. Most of the lower tier candidates are from Midwestern or southern states while most of the top tier candidates - the supposed electable candidates - are not.
So, while the insiders think they are bettering their odds by suggesting exclusiveness, they may actually be costing themselves the election. More importantly, the premise of limited participation calls into question one of the founding principles forwarded by the Democratic Party: Inclusion, or supposed inclusion, of all kinds of activists, voters, donors, and yeah, candidates.
What the complainers don't realize is that debates are no longer about having an extensive conversation about policy initiatives. That reporting is something people will need to read - after newspapers and magazines conduct long sit down interviews with the candidates. Debates have become short boxing matches where the candidates' visual and verbal presentations are accentuated. Who scored the best jab, the best one-liners, who slipped out of their chair during the low-key questioning period, are all repeated and analyzed on the post-game news shows. Media outlets are even tracking the number of seconds each candidate received during a 90 minute debate, not unlike football possession time or pitch counts for a starting baseball pitcher.
If the media wants a serious discussion about issues, it doesn't need to limit the number of participants. It can simply lengthen the format and time candidates are allowed to answer questions. While good candidates should be able to explain their positions on the invasion of Iraq, tax cuts, and health care within 30 to 60 seconds, a little more time would allow them to get more specific.
The question then becomes, Will the American people be patient and attentive enough to sit through these answers, keep a personal scorecard, in order to find a candidate to support? So far, the voters seem disinterested whether there are two candidates or nine.

... and some differing follow up ...
What a difference a day makes. I admit, I have been working on the above column for a couple of weeks. In fact, this version was the third version and edited down to the main point about limiting access to the lower tier candidates. However, I got up this morning to see that the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press has done some surveys and found that Republicans are making gains in swing and solidly-Democratic states: ["Poll shows dramatic GOP gains nationally"].
Now, these are polls of a small amount of people, so there really isn't any proof - just guesstimates - that the country is swinging right. A better way to do the analysis would be to check the voter registration numbers in states and track them during an annual period. Then, you might see shifts in party support. While most people don't change their affiliation, it would show how new voters are registering and that might reveal better pattern numbers.
However, that wouldn't necessarily prove that either party had gains just by registration. During the 2000 election, 13 percent of Democrats in Florida and 8 percent of Democrats in New Hampshire voted for Bush, according to CNN's exit polling. I have used these figures - along with others - to make the argument that Ralph Nader didn't steal the election from Al Gore. Independent registrations are trending higher than most political parties which spells trouble from the process because without allegiance one way or the other, the swing voters change the course of elections on little more than a whimsy - an effective ad here, a small scandal there, an exaggerated policy position over here. Because these independent voters have no affiliation to a political party, they can often be swayed by half-truths or out-right lies during the media portion of a campaign.

... McAuliffe is in trouble ...
DNC head Terry McAuliffe is in "limbo" with other Democrats after gubernatorial losses in Kentucky and Mississippi: ["Election result leaves McAuliffe in limbo"]. The Democrats get hammered in 2003. They got hammered in 2002. They got hammered in 2000. How many more losses must the party take before the leadership is canned? Keeping McAuliffe on is like keeping a CEO on while the stock slides. The Democrat's stock has been sliding for 12 quarters. When is someone going to jump in and stop the hemorrhaging?
Second note of the Democratic losses: How much longer will it be before the computer voting conspiracy buffs start blaming optical scanning machine software for the Democrat's losses?
Quick, the clock is ticking ...
It should be noted that when I went to vote on Tuesday for my local municipal elections [most of my candidates lost, BTW], I talked with a couple of precinct workers about the Accu-Vote machines used in my town. Not only are the machines not hooked up to modems - a major plank of the conspiracy argument, all those rightwing Christian hackers out there breaking into the phone lines and manipulating the results - the clerk has seen no major problems with the machines and in recounts they have had incredible accuracy to the paper ballots, similar to the accuracy I posted in my articles about recounts in some of towns I have done research on: ["Vote fraud, conspiracies, and real solutions to the elections problem"].
At the end of the voting, the precinct captain prints out the results from the machine and calls in the results to the clerk. Later, the voting card is taken out of the machine and both the card and the print out are brought to the clerk's office.
So, how do the rightwing Christians hack into the software to manipulate the results again?
I have been thinking about doing a study of counting process with local election boards just for kicks to see what other towns and cities do. It would be interesting to know. Unfortunately, I just don't have the time. Maybe some states use modems. So far, from what I have seen in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, this isn't the case.