The Last American Idol Standing
February 4, 2008
By John David Powell
Although people around the country are talking about it, no one seems to be saying anything. The subject is the degradation of the presidential election process. In this instance, we may define degradation as both the tarnishing and the humiliation of the grand tradition that is unique among the world's democracies.
Presidential campaigns have never been confused with genteel afternoon teas. Political campaigns, by their nature, are nasty and unavoidable beasts. But this year, more than any other, the battles among candidates, Democrats and Republicans, call to mind the bloody gladiatorial combats and savage-beasts fights staged in Rome's Coliseum for the entertainment of the emperor and the citizenry. The victor was the last man or beast standing.
Today, presidential primary campaigns play out on the television screen, the twenty-first century version of the Coliseum. One does not need to stretch the imagination to draw a comparison between these contests and some weird hybrid of American Idol and Last Man Standing, which could carry the title of "The Last American Idol Standing."
Each week, we parade the contestants in front of the nation's citizens and require the combatants to draw political blood from their opponents. Most participants survive to fight the next round. In the meantime, a small segment of the nation decides which candidate provided the best entertainment and inflicted the greatest damage. If the voters of a particular early-primary state cannot make up their minds, well-coifed and smooth-talking media stars tell them which candidate delivered the most damaging blows and which candidates cannot answer the bell.
And this is the model of democracy we encourage citizens of other nations to embrace.
The answer to why we subject ourselves to this political insanity is found, in part, in state bragging rights. When addressing the question about why New Hampshire should be the first state to hold primaries, the Manchester Union Leader responded with, "We've earned it." Indeed.
Another part of the answer is money (doesn't it always come down to that?). Estimates show this year's Iowa caucuses generated as much as $100 million for the state, with a fourth of that spent in Des Moines, according to the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau. For New Hampshire, the "We Earned It" state, campaign-related economic benefits could surpass $250 million.
Millions of dollars in free publicity is another factor in the race to degrade our political process. A study of the 2000 New Hampshire primary, conducted by the Library and Archives of New Hampshire Political Tradition and the New Hampshire Department of State, found that an estimated 20 million people heard positive messages about the state from the national media. An estimated 14 million people were exposed to stories that touted the state as a place to visit or to do business. The overall value of this media exposure, in terms of tourism promotion and economic development, came to $264 million.
In 2000, then-Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) and then-Democrat Joe Lieberman (Ind-CT), introduced the Regional Presidential Selection Act in response to what they called an arbitrary and confusing process that gives a handful of states a disproportionate influence.
In testimony before the Committee on Rules and Administration, Gorton cited a review by the Congressional Research Service that concluded that almost 80 percent of the delegates needed to claim the nomination for either party in the 2000 primaries were allocated by March 7, which prompted the media to declare the nomination process was finished.
This front-loading phenomenon on the part of nearly half of the states effectively denied the electorate in the remaining states the chance to cast meaningful votes for the candidates of their choice. This disenfranchisement of voters was not based on race, gender, or national origin. Front-loading states silenced these voters for the sake of tourism promotion and economic development.
The media are willing partners in the grab for economic gains. Nearly five million viewers watched the Jan. 21 Democratic debate on CNN, making that event the highest-rated political debate in cable TV history.
The Gorton-Lieberman bill would have created a rotating, regional system with all states in a region holding primaries or caucuses on the same date, in March, April, May, or June. The bill died in committee, however.
And so the question now may be, "How does this affect me?" If, for instance, you supported Rudy Giuliani or John Edwards on Jan. 29, and you lived in a state other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, or Florida, then you had to find another candidate on Jan. 30.
On Nov. 4, we all get a chance to decide between the last candidates standing. Only, at this rate, they may not be the most-qualified candidates, just the least bloodied.
It is time for the voters to give the proverbial thumbs-down to the current primary practice and retake control of the process. The opportunity of a citizen in one state to cast a meaningful vote for the candidate of his or her choice should not be a function of another state's economic development strategy.