Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Here we go again

I’ve got a theory about presidential elections. There may be nothing to the observations I’ve made recently, but here goes…

We all remember how close the 2000 election was, where George W. Bush won by just five electoral votes. Most of us had never seen a presidential election like that in our lifetime and didn’t expect to ever again.

Then came 2004. Bush defeated John Kerry by 35 electoral votes – not as narrow a margin as his 2000 victory, but still pretty close.

Given the state of things, I thought for sure this upcoming election would be the Democrats’ to lose. But the latest polls show Barack Obama and John McCain deadlocked or even McCain with a slight lead. It looks like another nail biter.

So this will be three really tight presidential elections in a row. There is a whole generation of voters coming up who only know presidential races like this.

But of course they are not all like this. Or at least they didn’t use to be. Recently I was looking at the electoral vote breakdown of presidential elections going back to 1964. Before 2000, the closest margin we had was in 1976 when Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford by 57 electoral votes. Outside of that, every presidential race between 1964 and 2000 was decided by a wide majority – the biggest of course being Ronald Reagan’s thumping of Walter Mondale in 1984, 525 electoral votes to 13 (Mondale only took his home state of Minnesota).

So if presidential elections used to be so much more decisive, why aren’t they anymore?

The last clear victory was in 1996 when Bill Clinton easily won a second term over Bob Dole. What’s changed since then to make these races so much tighter? I wonder if it’s the way we get our information about the campaigns.

Think about it. In 1996, CNN was a well-established news operation. But MSNBC and Fox News Channel were in their infancy. The glut of cable news coverage as we know it now didn’t really exist yet, but was firmly in place by 2000.

Talk radio boomed in the late 1990s. Rush Limbaugh paved the way in the early part of the decade. Love him or hate him, his show has been wildly successful and set the stage for the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and countless others who populate the airwaves today.

And of course there is a little thing called the Internet, which has transformed campaigning in ways I can’t begin to describe. Not only is it another source of news for the public, but it’s given candidates a new way to reach out to their supporters – who then can start up all sorts of grass roots efforts on their own.

That’s the biggest change the Internet has brought on. It’s changed the way we communicate about politics with each other. Now every Tom, Dick and Harry can start their own blog to spout off or trade info on Facebook. How many of you heard of Matt Drudge before 1996?

The bottom line, my unscientific observations seem to indicate people are talking and listening more (although maybe they’re not always doing enough of both). I’m not sure if that translates into increased voter turnout. I haven’t researched that. But I think those that do vote are much more opinionated, if not more informed.

So there’s my theory, crackpot thought it may be. Our transforming media culture has in turn transformed presidential politics. Back in 2000, we never thought we’d see a race like that again. Now I’m not sure we’ll ever see a race like 1984 again.


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