Rock the Vote (Don’t Rock the Vote, Baby…)

Debate dissonance in Philly

Talk about mixed messages. Last night’s debate, as ABC News informed us again and again, was the last meeting of the Democratic candidates before Tuesday’s “pivotal” Pennsylvania primary. Making the debate itself, therefore, pivotal.

Or something like that. While the “pivotal” nature of the whole thing—the debate, the primary itself—is arguable, one clear thing about “Fight Night in Philly” is the baffling degree of dissonance its coverage served up to voters.

Here’s WPVI, ABC News’s Philadelphia affiliate (aPhillyate?), discussing Fight Night, post-throwdown:

We’re less than a week away from the primary, but people—many people are still undecided, and they were really looking to this debate to sway them one way or the other.


People are tuning into the debate because they really do want to learn where these candidates stand on important issues.

And here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer’s political columnist, Dick Polman, discussing in yesterday’s paper how Obama needed to perform in the post-BitterGate debate (emphasis ours):

He has to turn this flap to his advantage, reframe the issue in a broader context, make the case for an economic populism that connects with Pennsylvania’s working-class voters—and force Hillary to explain why those same voters, long ignored and taken for granted, received so little help from the Bill Clinton administration.

Okay. So. Based on the local coverage, Pennsylvania voters were looking to yesterday’s debate to learn more about the candidates between whom they’ll be deciding next week. Apologies to Ben Franklin and Independence Hall and everything, but there’s nothing revolutionary about that. In fact, the debates-to-inform-the-voters premise should be the most obvious thing in the world. It should be, you know, self-evident.

But wait! Not so fast, representative democracy! Perhaps it’s not all about “we, the people,” after all! Here’s Charlie Gibson, off-handedly writing Pennsylvania voters out of the whole primary equation while asking Obama and Clinton, in last night’s final question, essentially to regurgitate their stump speeches:

It is hard to see how either one of you win this nomination on the basis of pledged delegates in primaries. And it could well come down to superdelegates. And I know you’ve been talking to them all along. But let’s say you’re at the convention in Denver, and you’re talking to a group of twenty undecided superdelegates. How are you going to make the case to them why you’re the better candidate and more electable in November?

And here are Cynthia McFadden and Jake Tapper, chatting, post-debate, on Nightline yesterday evening (emphasis, again, ours):

McFadden: Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama squared off in the last debate before Pennsylvania voters go to the polls six days from now. Our senior political correspondent Jake Tapper is across the way in Independence Hall.

Tapper: Cynthia, good evening. Senator Clinton did not pass up any opportunity to raise the electability of Barack Obama. She was talking to the superdelegates who will decide who the nominee will be.

Got that, Pennsylvania voters? It’s the superdelegates who will decide who the nominee will be…but, still, turn out on Tuesday! Rock that vote! You may not make waves, but still waters run deep! Or something like that!

The relationship between voters and superdelegates is, to be sure, a complex one, one that entwines chicken and egg nearly inextricably; and Gibson et al are largely correct in pointing out the power the superdelegates will likely have in determining which candidate will take on McCain in November. But there’s a particularly ironic audacity in ABC’s selling of its debate as a final, momentous opportunity for voters to parse the differences between the candidates…and then, in the next breath, informing those same voters that their decisions essentially won’t matter. It’s precisely this kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch that frustrates voters—and that, looking beyond the election, engenders distrust in the media meant to serve them.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.