Sunday, August 11, 2013

Election ("Collision 2012" by Dan Balz)

I was a college freshman during the 2004 presidential election, and part of being in a college town--and one in a swing state, no less--during an election year is hosting an unending number of politicians hoping to sway your vote. Always a lover of politics, not to mention someone who appreciates the historical flare of elections, some friends and I decided to attend an early-morning rally for John Kerry at our campus sports facility, a rundown and embarrassing structure only 200 feet or so from our dorm rooms. We got up early--6:30, if I remember correctly, which is pretty early for college students--and walked across the empty parking lot, half-awake but excited to see the man we hoped would be our future president. We were wanded by security, marched through metal detectors, and then seated in folding chairs. The rally was scheduled to begin around 8, a time that came just as quickly as it went. No candidate appeared. A man in the crowd began a chant of "Ker-ry! Ker-ry!" which rose to a thunderous roar before dying out when Kerry, again, didn't appear. One of the women sitting on the dais rose and gave a speech in support of the candidate--a sure sign, we thought, that finally the rally was about to begin. We gave her a thunderous applause, continuing it longer than it should have in the belief that she had just introduced the man himself.

But once again, no candidate appeared. The woman returned to her seat, and the gymnasium once again fell into a deafening silence.

I don't remember exactly how long we waited for Kerry, but it was well over an hour and a half, and by the time he did any enthusiasm I had had that morning was gone. I looked around the gymnasium--the outdated banners, the wooden bleachers befitting a small-town high school, the fluorescent lights drowning us all in a dim sleepy fog--and felt myself becoming disillusioned with not only the man but everything his campaign was doing. I thought of all the Bush rallies I'd seen on television--large, celebratory events choreographed more like rock concerts than campaign events--and marveled at how much better they seemed compared to this one. It was one of those moments when, on top of discovering that your choice for emperor has no clothes, you realize the other emperor has no intention of giving up his.

I don't remember a single thing John Kerry said that day, though I do know he spoke for some time. What I do remember, however, is his spit:  big, powerful clouds of saliva propelled across the stage as he spoke and caught like diamonds in the lighting. When the speech was done, I lined up alongside everyone else and stretched out my hand to shake his. What followed was the one other incontrovertible fact I remember from that day:  John Kerry had the smoothest hands of any person I'd ever met.

When a voter looks back on their candidate's campaign and can only remember spit and smooth hands--instead of, say, powerful rhetoric, an engaging personal narrative, or a platform of progressive goals--it is nothing more than a mark of failure for that campaign. George W. Bush was a vulnerable and stumbling incumbent when he ran for reelection in 2004, and the Democrats had a chance--a narrow one, to be sure, but narrow chances are better than no chances--to oust him from office and undo at least some of the damage caused by his presidency. So much of what Bush had accomplished over the previous term was unpopular and, some would argue, unconstitutional, and on top of those weaknesses Bush was in charge of an administration populated by controversial figures. And when the Democratic Party and its voters looked out across the wide swathe of possible candidates to run again Bush, it settled on John Kerry--a rich, out-of-touch flip-flopper from deep-blue Massachusetts whose speaking skills ranked alongside those of a goat. To those few who were clear-eyed enough to see through partisan emotions, it was one big disaster of a choice. Eight years later, however, it would be--ironically, hilariously--the very same roadmap used by Republicans to fight Barack Obama, and anyone with a sense of history could see how it was going to end.

When the ramp-up to the 2012 presidential elections began, more than a few politicos were writing off Obama's chances to win reelection. The unemployment rate was above eight percent--the mark of death, they reassured us, citing Franklin Roosevelt as the last Democrat to defy such economic odds--and he was responsible for the widely controversial Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"), which Republicans and the 24-hour news cycle had successfully spun into the pinnacle of socialism and the downfall of our constitutional liberties. His administration featured controversial figures--Timothy Geithner, Eric Holder, Larry Summers, the outspoken Joe Biden--and was being sucked down further and further into the quagmire of a do-nothing Congress, precisely the kind of politicking he had promised to change. The Republican Party had a shot at retaking the White House--a narrow one, to be sure, but again, narrow chances are better than none--and, much like the Democrats in 2004, chose a rich, out-of-touch flip-flopper from liberal Massachusetts, former governor Mitt Romney, to take on the incumbent.

However, eight years is a long time in American politics, and there were two major differences between 2004 and 2012--both of them to Obama's benefit. The first was that, unlike the Democrats in 2004, the Republicans of 2012 had become so polarized by Obama's presidency--thanks in part to the demagoguery of cable news, as well as the comforts of gerrymandered districts--that anyone hoping to capture the nomination faced a gauntlet of enraged Tea Party conservatives who wanted someone who was not only certifiably anti-Obama but also rabidly anti-government, and they refused to vote for anyone who diverged even slightly from this criteria. This meant that even reliably conservative Republicans found themselves swinging to the far right on almost every issue--abortion, immigration, taxes, health care, foreign policy, welfare--or facing jeers when they didn't. (When Rick Perry advocated compassion towards the children of immigrants born in the United States--a decision made squarely by their parents--and said those who didn't had no heart, he was famously booed.) Before 2012, there had always been a sort of rhythm to campaigning--speak to the fringe during the primary, move back to the center for the general election--but never had it been this pronounced, and with so many televised debates for the Republicans to do, each swing towards the fringe was logged, repeated, and dissected ad nauseum.

The second difference between 2004 and 2012--and the second of Obama's major benefits--was that the president's campaign adapted and became, for lack of a better description, the most efficient campaigning machine in American history. Lauded for their groundbreaking use of technology in 2008, a time when simply using Facebook and YouTube was considered revolutionary, the Obama campaign amped up their organization into a massive, data-mining system that could delineate the difference between certain kinds of voters--those who were reliable, those who chose a side but needed reminders, those who were undecided--and disperse volunteers accordingly. If a voter had chosen Obama or was a reliable supporter, they no longer received calls, visits, or mailings--a valuable decision that, in the long run, saved them time, money, and the energy of their volunteers. If they'd sent away for an absentee ballot, the campaign knew if and when it was returned; if the ballot wasn't, the voter received reminders, sometimes through phone calls and sometimes in person. On an individual scale, this seems trivial, but seen as one cog in a country-wide machine, its benefits become obvious. And while the Obama campaign was using this information to reach out, Mitt Romney was still wading through the primary and, later, following the same disorganized pattern made familiar in pre-tech campaigns. It was comparable to one man campaigning on television while the other did so from the back of a train--a disparity that spelled certain doom for Romney's candidacy, regardless of the economy.

The subtitle of Collision 2012, Dan Balz's book on the titular presidential election, is "Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America." And true to his subtitle, Balz balances his examination of the election's chronology and content with a look at what this one election means for the changing face of American politics. Obama's campaign strategies--of advanced data and technological resources balanced with a strong and organized network of volunteers on the ground--will mark a future in which presidential campaigns are personalized to the point of over-familiarity. Candidates of the future will tailor their messages not only to specific voting blocs--soccer moms, hockey dads, Evangelicals, activists, moderates, the fringe--but to specific people, each delineated in a database based on online purchasing activity, education levels, income, family makeup, voting turnout, activity on social networks, and so on. They will know as much about us as we know about them, depending on where they're visiting any given week, and elections that used to bother us digitally--TV, radio, emails--will now intrude physically, as well, until they're as common-place in our lives as the mailman, the supermarket cashier, or the power company coming to check our meter.

And, based on Balz's observations from 2012, it's becoming increasingly clear that this is a change the Democratic Party has not only embraced, as is obvious from the last election, but is already using to its benefit. Where smaller races--state legislatures, the House of Representatives--are determined primarily by gerrymandering, state-wide races will be guided by computers, and the Republicans are already years behind. Of the three sections making up Collision 2012, the largest by far is devoted to the Republicans, who wasted valuable time and resources choosing a nominee--possibly the strangest, most entertaining primary in the last fifty years--and then conducted a campaign stuck in 2004. Balz discusses their lack of focus--too much time on fringe-pleasing social issues, not enough emphasis on the economy--and their inability to expand their base beyond older, uneducated white people, both of which will continue to hurt the party in the elections to come.

Collision 2012 is not a rehash of the election, day by tiring day, and we're better for it--those books will come later, warts and all. Instead, Balz has written the first of what will be many dissections of what the election means and what we--the voters, the candidates, their campaigns--should learn going forward. Already, not ten months after Obama won reelection, there is chatter about 2016--who will run, what states will be in play, which way the parties will move. This impatience a disturbing trend in American politics, one of many, and these desperate cries for more are a clear indicator that any lessons offered up by Obama's victory--or, if you prefer, Romney's defeat--will go unheeded, at least for a few more years.

In 2008--the year before I graduated from college--I attended a rally for Barack Obama. Much had changed since the Kerry rally--the media bombardment was even more constant, the scrutiny even more intense. And on a more personal level, the Obama rally was held in our campus' brand new athletic complex--bright, clean, expensive, a source of pride--which stood on the very ground where parts of the old, embarrassing building once stood. (Even today, parts of the old building remain in tact and are worthy of avoidance.) Looking back, that one change was a grand metaphor all its own--a new and better structure standing in the shadow of an old and failed one, just as that young, refreshing candidate stood in the shadow of an old, embarrassing one. What no one in that room understood was that the very thing we'd come to see that day wouldn't end when the seats and stage emptied. Instead, that campaign would continue in one way or another almost non-stop for the next four years, if not longer.