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Primary Issues

January 13, 2000

The Iowa caucuses, the first official contest of the 2000 presidential election campaign, are less than two weeks away, and the New Hampshire primary follows close behind. Two articles from The Atlantic Monthly published during the 1996 campaign season considered many of the same issues that have cropped up in the current campaign, and may provide insight into today's situation. Then as now, the early frontrunners were those most skilled at raising money -- something that this year's compressed primary schedule has made even more critical -- and there was a wide (and widely noted) gulf between voters and the political elite surrounding the candidates.

In "The Elite Primary" (November 1995) David Frum took a look at the fundraising challenges facing the candidates as they geared up for the primaries, and called attention to what has become the real first-in-the-nation contest. "The elite primary," Frum wrote, "does not occur in any one particular state: it is a shadowy national competition to raise money, sign up prominent supporters, and impress the media in the year preceding the election year." Frum argued that the current campaign-finance laws have changed the way people campaign. Before the current laws were enacted, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, "a candidate like George McGovern could run for office with the support of a few very rich backers who held eccentric ideas." Frum continued,

But with an individual-donor limit of $1,000 and a spending limit of $36 million, it no longer suffices to locate a few eccentric millionaires. A candidate must spend the now-all-important year before the primaries winning the support of thousands of affluent contributors. It's like filling a bathtub with a tablespoon. And since not even the most grimly determined candidate can woo so many people one by one, he or she must first win the support of the few hundred maestros of the Rolodex who have proved their ability and willingness to sponsor the fund-raising galas, cocktail parties, breakfast meetings, and intimate suppers necessary to extract the requisite quota of funds from each major region's check-writing Democrats and Republicans. What campaign-finance reform has done is to take a commodity in which America rolls in ridiculous oversupply, money, and create an artificial shortage of it -- and thus an artificial inflation of the influence and power of those who can mobilize it.
As a result, Frum argued, sounding a note that has become more and more familiar in the past four years, voters are increasingly distanced from and disillusioned by the electoral process -- they have little interest in the candidates and distrust the elites who have such a disproportionate impact on the campaigns.
Once upon a time the machinery of the two great political parties sorted through the potential candidates. But that machinery rusted away long ago. All that remains is the candidates themselves, a hundred million voters unwilling to contribute very much more to the political process than their ballot on Election Day, and, interceding between them, some tens of thousands of donors, party activists, political professionals, and journalists.
In "The Uncertain Leviathan" (August 1996), Jonathan Schell, who followed the 1996 primaries for Newsday, likewise pointed to the deep divide between "political professionals" -- politicians, their advisers and employees, and the media -- and voters, a divide that has fundamentally changed the way campaigns are run and the way voters and politicians interact.
Few citizens are likely to have much firsthand experience of either politicians or the news media. However, in the small states with early caucuses or primaries, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, personal contact between the two Americas is possible for a considerable proportion of the voters. The encounters I saw in these states fairly crackled with tension. To begin with, at almost every campaign stop there appeared a beast that rarely failed to astonish the uninitiated citizen. A sort of many-footed, many-eyed, many-tongued land octopus held together by cords and wires and jutting electronic equipment of all descriptions, the beast was the media scrum that instantly clusters around candidates when they move from one place to another. At many events this ungainly clump outnumbered the citizenry, who sometimes had a hard time getting anywhere near the candidate.

Such moments illustrated a feature of the relationship between the participating political class and the passive voting class: the severance of direct human contact, once thought to be the very glue of politics, between the two worlds into which the political United States has now been sundered.

Schell argued that despite this divide, or maybe because of it, the political professionals are trying harder to ascertain what voters want -- through polls, focus groups, and the like. He described a "hyperdemocracy" in which candidates change their tune according to voters' every whim, and then can't live up to the extravagant promises they've made during the campaign, which serves to further alienate the electorate.
It is tempting to see the shifts of the nineties as a speeded-up version of a normal seesawing between right and left. A better metaphor, however, would be a pendulum with a wrecking ball at the end. For each time the public tries something out -- now swinging right, now left -- and is disillusioned, another piece of its confidence in politics as a whole is knocked down. In this atmosphere only negative enthusiasm remains possible. It's small wonder, then, that campaigns should revolve around negative ads, for the public can agree only on what it dislikes, not on what it likes or wants to see done.... But in politics, if not in math, the negative of a negative is not a positive -- it's another negative. In fact, the unpopularity of negative ads only announces a deeper vacuum.
Whether or not Frum's and Schell's examinations of the 1996 campaign will hold true in this election year remains to be seen. But the disillusionment they both pointed to certainly remains an immutable part of the political landscape.
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