Press’s Awkward Treatment of Diverse Prez Field Begins

With the 2008 campaign under way, the press's attempts to shoehorn the candidates into simplistic narrative frameworks have begun, too.

With the 2008 campaign under way about six months earlier than usual, the press’s awkward attempts to shoehorn America’s most diverse presidential field ever into simplistic narrative frameworks have begun, too. Says an ABC News headline, “Romney: ‘I’m Not Running for Pastor-In-Chief.’”

Elsewhere on ABC’s site, a Friday piece previewing Barack Obama’s weekend trip to South Carolina warned the candidate was stepping “right into a Dixie briar patch of racial politics.” As the Paula Zahn-like subhed declared, “Obama Candidacy Forces Questions About Racial Politics Into the Open.”

Yet it was the Christian Science Monitor that brought the various strands of presidential “firsts” together on Friday, producing a generic article that did not (or could not) say much.

“The 2008 presidential field presents a veritable cornucopia of potential firsts — a woman, an African-American, a Hispanic, a Mormon, and, representing the attribute perhaps most sensitive for discussion, a top contender who would be the oldest person ever to assume the American presidency,” reported the Monitor’s Linda Feldmann.

While “gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and age are, respectively, only a part of what defines” Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, Mitt Romney and John McCain, wrote Feldmann, “as they seek to shape their identities with the American people, each must cope with questions and challenges arising from personal attributes.” (As ABC put it while discussing two “uncomfortable” questions, “can Obama count on black voters to vote for a black candidate? Will his race affect the decision-making process of white voters?”)

As the Monitor’s Feldmann noted, generic polls on the above distinctive demographic characteristics “lay out the contours of each candidate’s challenge”: “In the latest Gallup poll, 11 percent of voters say they would not vote for a woman if their party nominated one, 5 percent would not vote for an African-American, and 24 percent would not vote for a Mormon.”

In a sad, ageist setback for McCain, “a whopping 42 percent” said they would not vote for a 72-year-old — yet a L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll from December “shows 14 percent of voters would not vote for a 72-year-old. The difference may reflect differences in the two polls’ wording.” So maybe McCain will be okay.

Feldmann acknowledged as much. “For the candidates, generic polls go only so far. Voters probably react differently to Senator Obama than, say, to the Rev. Al Sharpton, both of whom are black Demo-crats,” she wrote (“Demo-crats” an interesting wording itself), while “McCain can counter questions about his age by presenting a vigorous profile on the campaign trail.”

Muddling things further, Feldmann added that “when a generic question is asked after a person who fits the profile comes to the fore, it is possible that person is skewing the result” — namely that the drop in recent years in the number of Americans who would vote for a woman is likely a hard-core Republican reaction “to Senator Clinton, who was a subject of presidential speculation for years before she announced.” So, on the one hand, it’s pretty certain that Hillary is dragging down her generic numbers. But on the other, Romney can overcome his, even though a quarter of voters react negatively to a Mormon candidate — “that doesn’t mean he can’t overcome [that negativity],” a Gallup honcho told Feldmann.

The story went on, noting at one point that Clinton “must strike a careful balance between addressing kitchen-table matters and describing how she would protect the nation as commander in chief,” but the message we drew away from it was already clear: a campaign story based on the hypothetical necessarily cannot go far.

Yet one more paragraph did stand out: “It’s possible that after the news media have completed their first wave of coverage on all the potential ‘firsts’ in the ‘08 presidential race, the focus will turn more to issue differences.”

We certainly hope so. This coming election will be groundbreaking, and the “identity” of each candidate, and the political ramifications of such, deserve serious consideration. But the press’s take needs to be more complex, and considered, than it was here.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.