Election Mania…in Europe

European media and their audiences catch the U.S.’s Election Fever

On a Wednesday a couple of weeks ago, French, Dutch and Polish camera crews gathered in a small studio on Park Avenue. All were correspondents for TV news networks in their respective home countries, and all had come to interview Amber “Obama Girl” Lee, who was in New York shooting a video for her latest song. (Her debut, “I Have a Crush…on Obama,” launched on YouTube in June, has been viewed, in a conservative count, 8 million times.) The Dutch correspondent did his item on “Elections 2.0,” on the role of YouTube in the race for the White House; the Polish team, meanwhile, interviewed the Dutch reporter as part of a story about how a young girl with a crush on a potential presidential candidate was now conquering the world with her videos.

European media are covering the run-up to the November ’08 presidential elections with an unprecedented intensity and frequency. In the Netherlands, for example, the primaries have been covered extensively on public television, radio, and the front pages of national dailies since they began; and whether Obama or Clinton will stand a better chance against McCain is a hot topic of debate among students, politicians, media pundits, and housewives alike.

Dutch politicians ‘endorse’ candidates; newspaper editorials assess the campaign; translated (auto)biographies of McCain, Clinton and Obama are all over the place; and Dutch journalists, former correspondents, and “America-watchers” have published books with such inspiring titles as The Best One Never Wins, Hurray! A New President, and The Fight for the White House. The news and opinion weekly, Elsevier, is translating and publishing Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited about Obama and Why He Can’t Win (although both the author and the publisher are still debating the appropriateness of the title), and has featured Obama, Clinton and McCain on its cover; Nieuwe Revu, another weekly, ran a feature about Giuliani when he was still in the race.

Technical advances are at least part of the reason the coverage is more extensive this time around. Major newspapers have all devoted special sections of their Web sites to the elections, with wire news, blogs, and original reporting.

“This just wasn’t possible four years ago,” says Pieter Broertjes, editor in chief of the Volkskrant, a leading national daily, which is running an election special on its Web site. (The Volkskrant site even features a “Voting Compas,” a questionnaire through which Dutch readers can find out which candidate they should support - even if the majority of the country’s 16-odd million citizens won’t be able to cast a vote.)

NOS, the national news network, has dispatched three correspondents to Washington to cover the elections, and according to Hans Laroes, NOS’s editor in chief, “their output is much bigger” than it was four years ago. In April alone, Nova, the premier current affairs program on Dutch public television, aired twenty-eight items related to Clinton, Obama, or McCain; by comparison, the total number of items devoted to Kerry and/or Bush during the 2004 general election was thirty-one.

The Dutch, it seems, can’t get enough of American election news - and they’re not alone. US elections have always been important media events in Europe, if only because U.S. foreign policy simply affects Europe - especially “Atlantically Oriented” nations like the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. But across the board, this year’s coverage already outsizes that of 2000 and 2004 by far. And the general election hasn’t even started yet.

According to Salvatore Scrimenti, Program Officer for the Netherlands, Germany and France at the Foreign Press Center in New York, an agency of the U.S. State Department, there is “a lot more interest on behalf of the foreign press. In addition, the foreign press centers, unlike 2004, are conducting press tours to many of the battleground primary states, which we did not do during 2004.” These tours, he added, are always filled to capacity.

“It’s because it’s so exciting,” says Pieter Broertjes of the Volkskrant. The elections are much more interesting for Dutch audiences, Laroes notes, because no incumbent president is participating in them. Or, as one TV correspondent, Willem Lust, puts it: “It’s an open-ended race, and the candidates are historically unique” - a reference, of course, to Hillary Clinton’s gender, and Barack Obama’s race.

Indeed, fascination with the Democratic candidates seems to be part of it, too. “Obama Mania” has hit even European politicians: the leader of the Italian Democratic Party, Walter Veltroni, campaigned (in vain) with the slogan “Si, Puo Fare” (“Yes, We Can”), and Dutch Labor Party MP Diederik Samsom has been reported as obsessively forwarding Internet videos of Obama’s speeches to his colleagues, adding, “We should do the same!”

But at the heart of the European media’s election craze lies more than just the thrill of an open- ended race or the exoticness of the candidates. Attention is unlikely to drop once the battle between Clinton and Obama is over. To the contrary: the European campaign coverage will likely go “full speed on to the White House.” For the first time, the Foreign Press Center will be present at both party conventions; and Hans Laroes has said that his team in Washington will be expanded in the six or eight weeks preceding the actual elections, so that “even more reports” can be filed. And Election Day (which, in GMT+2 is Election Night, really) will be broadcast live for the first time.

As Laroes puts it, mildly: “Bush’s policy has been rather polarizing, so there’s a lot of interest in a ‘different politics.’” Europeans desire change, and their media deliver the stories of the run-up to that change. “It’s much more than just Clinton-Obama,” Laroes says. “It’s about the country itself, profoundly so.”

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Lynn Berger is a freelance writer based in New York City.