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Originally published Wednesday, March 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Media and the messengers: the new political tug-of-war

The Rube Goldberg contraption known as the American presidential nominating process has yielded three diverse candidates: a 71-year-old...

Special to The Times

The Rube Goldberg contraption known as the American presidential nominating process has yielded three diverse candidates: a 71-year-old white male war hero, a 60-year-old white former first lady, and a 46-year-old freshman U.S. senator born of a white mother and black father. This hasn't happened by accident, but rather reflects the deep changes in media that are shaping our society.

Each candidate has brand strengths:

With his vigor and multicultural makeup, Barack Obama appeals to the 18-to-34-year-old demographic that is searching for identity and wants to break from the traditional choices made by their parents.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has tapped into the anxieties felt by middle-aged women and older voters about the trends in our society that have left them most vulnerable, particularly their access to health care and economic security.

John McCain, who is much more of a political maverick than either party wants to acknowledge, draws strength from Americans who respect "the Greatest Generation" and who see his Vietnam War service as emblematic of idealism born of a different era.

If TV advertisers chose our president, they would be placing bets on Obama for his ability to attract the core young demographic that sets trends and represents future buying power. His multiracial appeal mirrors the rock-star status of Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Lenny Kravitz and a host of other popular figures who defy easy categorization by race.

While his charisma and intellectual magnetism obviously attract people from different walks of life, Obama's problem on the path to the nomination is that older Americans vote in disproportionate numbers, particularly in low-turnout primaries, and that women constitute a majority of Democratic primary voters.

The NBC News exit polling on Super Tuesday showed that while Obama garnered 57 percent of voters between the ages of 19 and 29, Clinton won 57 percent of voters over 60 years old. Most recently, in Ohio, the Dayton Daily News reported that 69 percent of those older than 60 voted for Clinton and 61 percent of those ages 17 to 29 voted for Obama.

Clinton also won 57 percent of the female voters in Ohio and 58 percent in Texas, according to CNN. The gap between men and women, and young and old, is widening with these two candidates, as each campaign figures out how to message its base.

It shouldn't surprise us, then, that the medium matches the messenger. Obama soars online and in new media, providing him with a huge potential direct-fundraising base. His oratory shines in big arenas, where he can motivate tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters to attend a caucus or help turn out the vote.

Clinton, meanwhile, does better in small groups and has cultivated the established fundraising network, with higher average donations derived from the party's wealthy donor bases on the East and West coasts.

McCain, who floundered in the early primaries in terms of fundraising, will now tap the traditional GOP networks.

Clinton is most effective in 30-second TV ads where she does not directly appear on screen to deliver the message. She'll continue to use this tactic in the remaining primaries, while Obama parries the television attacks and counters with his grass-roots organization.

If Democratic leaders believed in the ascendancy of the Internet, wireless, social networks and other new means of communication, the choice for their presidential nominee would be clear, because Obama resonates with early adopters and voters who have been frustrated by traditional outlets of political discourse.

The Democratic Party, however, is caught between its future and its past. Democrats can't win without satisfying their base of older voters, who turn out to preserve Medicare and Social Security. At the same time, the party needs to capture young voters and make inroads with young men against the GOP.

McCain, as a political centrist, will need to run both to the right and left in the general election, reaching out to independents while also placating his party's conservative base.

The last candidate who mastered a new medium of communication and won the presidency also struggled with traditional Democratic constituencies. He came from a religious minority. He had the disadvantage of being a young senator from a northeastern state. Yet his compelling oratory, appeal to a new kind of patriotism and telegenic good looks propelled him to the White House as the 35th president of the United States. You know his name.

With the infusion of politics on interactive networks that voters can access on demand, spurring people to action at the community level, the qualities of a Barack Obama will become more self-evident. In 2008, we are witnessing the tug-of-war between the proven methods of traditional politics and the shock of the new.

Alex Alben, a high-tech executive based in Seattle, writes regularly on technology, media and politics for The Seattle Times. E-mail him at: alexalben99@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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