Most candidates would be too embarrassed to stage a faux victory party in a primary contest where no delegates were awarded and no one competed. Not Hillary Clinton. Yesterday in Florida, she held a campaign rally disguised as a fundraiser to celebrate her “victory” over Barack Obama and John Edwards. Clinton’s calculation was that it would be better to fabricate some sense of momentum going into February 5th’s Super Tuesday contest, and risk whatever criticism that strategy might receive, than to let her 28-point loss to Obama in South Carolina last weekend be the final word. Her other calculation was that while those who follow politics closely would rightly see her celebration in Florida as a political stunt, the vast majority of Americans– not well versed in DNC party rules or the relatively complicated process that led to Florida being stripped of its delegates– would see it as an impressive comeback.
To what must have been Hillary Clinton’s delight, the Republican primary, also held last night, was a neck-and-neck battle that wasn’t decided until well after 9:00 p.m.– 120+ minutes after the polls in Florida had closed. So for two hours, political pundits from every network had little else to discuss but the one projection they could confidently make: Clinton over Obama by a sizeable margin. Nevermind that the results were meaningless and no delegates were awarded, nevermind that none of the candidates were allowed to so much as run a radio advertisement or send out campaign mailers in the state of Florida, there was airtime to fill.
But even more pitiful than the media’s thumb-twiddling Tuesday night was its coverage Wednesday morning, as one outlet after another gave equal weight to the Republican and Democratic results. The front page of the Miami Herald was only the most egregious example. “Clinton dominates Obama and takes bragging rights heading into ‘Super Tuesday,’” read the headline. In newspapers across Florida, and on prominent Internet sites like CNN.com and Politico.com, the results of both contests were displayed prominently side-by-side, with all that confusing campaign and delegate business buried in the fine print.
Much has been made of the racial, gender, and age gaps in the Democratic race, fueled this year by both the identity politics that usually dominate the party and the innuendo that usually dominates the other party. But one gap that’s been frequently overlooked is the attention gap. Among voters who pay attention, and those with more education, Barack Obama does well. Among voters who don’t keep up, and those with less education, Hillary Clinton dominates. How else to explain why Clinton holds a double-digit lead nationally, but can’t manage to beat Obama by more than 6 points in any state where he invests resources to campaign? The results in Florida also bear this out: in a state where no campaigning was allowed, Clinton won by 17 points, by far her largest margin of the campaign. In the exit polls from New Hampshire, one of the two primary contests so far, Clinton held a 36-point advantage over Obama among voters with no high school education. But among voters with a post-graduate degree or better, Obama beat her by 12 points. In South Carolina, Obama won the uneducated voters by 12 points and the post-graduate voters by 21.
There are two reasons for this attention gap, one more unsettling than the other. The first is simple name recognition. If you were alive in the 1990s, you know the name Clinton. Bill was President, Hillary First Lady, and their various scandals ensured that even those who were more inclined to watch Entertainment Tonight than World News Tonight were intimately familiar with the Clinton brand. On the other hand, Obama’s only real foray into popular culture was thanks to a weekend of campaigning with talk show megastar Oprah Winfrey. The coverage of that event– though overwhelmingly positive– lasted a mere weekend (and perhaps diminished Obama in the eyes of casual observers from a serious politician to a media celebrity).
The other reason for the attention gap is decidedly more disturbing. It’s not that Hillary Clinton bends the truth every now and then– every politician does that, no matter how hopeful their politics are– it’s that she revels in doing it. She boldly parades half-truths, transparent exaggerations, and demonstrable falsehoods in the broadest of daylight and dares the media, and her opponents, to call her bluff. It’s why she could, with a straight face, spend weeks claiming that Barack Obama’s consistent and documented opposition to the Iraq War was, in President Clinton’s words, a “fairy tale.” (The irony being that if Bill and Hillary Clinton, with all their influence, had spoken out against the Iraq War as forcefully as Obama did in 2002, America very well may not have ever gone in). It’s why she continues to claim 35 years of experience despite the fact that 35 years ago she was in law school. And it’s why last night in Florida, she held a “victory” party to celebrate a contest that no one was competing in.
To the educated voter, and those who pay close enough attention to recognize the sleight of hand, Hillary Clinton is a con artist. (Though some believe that the depth of her bag of tricks makes her a good bet against a Republican opponent, honesty be damned). But to the casual voter, she’s a magician. These are the voters who get their news from soundbytes and late-night talk shows, and they have neither the time nor the interest to investigate further. They consider a scattered band of cave-dwelling dissidents to be “the transcendent threat of the 21st century” because John McCain repeatedly says so. And they believe that Hillary Clinton is most ready to lead on Day One, best qualified to get us out of Iraq, and the most electable candidate in November, all because she says she is– over and over and over again.
This is not to suggest that less educated voters are less intelligent, it’s just that whether they’re working three jobs, raising three kids, or spending three nights a week studying for their degree, they’ve got better things to do. And so do the rest of us. For that reason, the Clintons and the Bushes, the Roves and the Wolfsons, have mastered the art of communicating in headlines, an essential talent in today’s society that Obama can’t seem to grasp.
But regardless of who’s communicating in headlines, there’s only one group who controls the headlines. In our democracy, it’s the job of the media to sort fact from fiction, to highlight both demonstrable truths and willfull distortions, and to communicate them clearly. It’s the job of the media to label misleading political stunts like the one Hillary Clinton pulled last night in Florida as desperate, not to legitimize them in two-inch font and hide all the qualifiers under the fold and behind the links. It’s hard to entirely fault a candidate for a trying to manufacture momentum– it’s hard to come by and even harder to hold onto. But when they do it by violating the spirit of their party rules and attempting to mislead voters who may not be paying attention, it’s the media’s job to realize that the “what they did” isn’t nearly as big a story as the “how they did it.”