Saturday, January 26, 2008

What's the storyline in South Carolina?

[Also cross-posted on my MojoMom blog]

I am a Democrat, a big John Edwards fan, but I see good things in Obama and Clinton as well. I have been very frustrated by the mainstream media forcing storylines on a primary season that is just starting to unfold. The best analysis I have seen of the insistence on "horse race" coverage is "Why Campaign Coverage Sucks" by Jay Rosen, originally reported on, and reposted to

Today on, as the primary is underway, the headline says, "Obama's legitimacy on line in South Carolina." Oh really? Who says? I am worried that the media has painted Obama into a racial box in South Carolina: on the one hand, Obama needs to show strong from African-American support. As CNN's Bill Schneider says, "Obama's support among African-American voters gives him more legitimacy. Obama has been doing well with young voters, independents and educated upper-middle-class liberals -- the NPR vote. Winning the black vote by a solid margin means Obama has standing with the Democratic Party's base."

But on the other hand, what if Obama wins South Carolina on the strength of the black vote, but lags behind in the white vote? Will the man who was once questioned for being "Black Enough" now become marginalized as "The Black Candidate," even though he won in lily-white Iowa and got 37% of the vote versus Clinton's 39% in New Hampshire? It seems to me that Hillary Clinton gets only beneficial bonus points for winning the black vote but obviously can't be marginalized as the White Candidate for scoring too many points in her demographic.

The gender card is its own mine-field. Of course Hillary Clinton faces the double-bind of being tough enough yet likeable and relatable. I am concerned about both of these fine candidates being pigeonholed unfairly, and I was really upset by the squabbling this week between Clinton and Obama. I did get the impression personally that Clinton's campaign has unleashed some unfair attacks against Obama, that Hillary has tried to appear to be rising above that fray yet sends her surrogates (Bill and others) to do the dirty work. Some call that politics, some call it hardball, I call it unfortunate. I will consider this election a failure if our unconscious racism and sexism are used as weapons by candidates against each other. I guess that brands me as a hopeless idealist, because of course this is already happening and will happen between parties [and memo to Broadsheet, a blog that I generally respect, your growing fascination with this drama is making it worse] but it crushes me to see candidates whom I like and respect going after each other that way.

As for the narrative of the Democratic Primary, Obama won Iowa, Clinton won New Hampshire, and although both "beat expectations" in each race, it's pretty close between the two of them. Why do we have to have this huge back-and-forth drama after each race? Both Clinton and Obama have more support in their party than any individual Republican has in his party. These are two viable candidates, and we should let the voters rather than the media decide who will end up on top.

What do you think? Am I on to something here, and am I also missing something? I am open to the possibility that I am adopting storylines without being conscious of them. My favorite political pundit is definitely Jon Stewart, who is not afraid to call the media out on its bullshit. He deftly skewered pollster John Zogby for the fact that all the predictions about the Democratic New Hampshire primary were just WRONG. Zogby didn't have a good answer for what went wrong, or Stewart's common-sense question about why can't we just wait a couple of days and see what the voters say?

Maybe because it would put the pundits out of business....? For a rare glimpse of sanity on, read University of South Carolina School of Law Professor Danielle Holley-Walker's commentary, "Issues -- not gender or race -- on minds of voters," and stay tuned for the voice of the voters in South Carolina and beyond.

Living in North Carolina, I am happy to think that my vote in the Primary on May 6th could actually mean something.

For more background on this topic I recommend Drew Westen's book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. Race and gender touch deep buttons in all of us, and it would be a shame if we let manipulation of these frameworks determine the outcome of our election. In 2000 we seemed to pick based on the guy we'd rather have a beer with, and look where that got us. We need to really think things through this time and make sure we're guided by our better angels rather than our unconscious comfort zones or prejudices.