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Our Virtual Primaries | The Nation

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Our Virtual Primaries

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The instant media cities are, of course, merely an outcropping of the gigantic industries of the information age--industries as immense and powerful and as thoroughly devoted to their aggrandizement, growth and profit as any military-industrial complex. These are industries, however, that, like the politicians they cover, feed on public attention, and in fact would shrivel without it. To attract that attention, they of course need stories, the bigger the better. An O.J. Simpson trial or an impeachment is to these industries what the B-2 bomber or the Seawolf submarine is to the Pentagon. A presidential campaign, though not in a league with O.J., is nevertheless a major story. Yet herein lies a problem. How, in a political system that provides for a presidential election only once every four years, can the story be sustained in the fallow years--between a Dowd's or a Broder's "mention" and the decision three years later? How can the story develop? What will its events be?

About the Author

Jonathan Schell
Jonathan Schell is the Lannan Fellow at The Nation Institute and teaches a course on the nuclear dilemma at...

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That is where public-opinion polls come in. Their importance is often underestimated. They are commonly seen merely as precursors of elections. It would be more accurate, by now, to recognize them as little elections in themselves. Last year a brief comedy was enacted by the state of Louisiana when it sought to supplant Iowa as the first caucus state. Louisiana missed the point. The supposedly first primary is already preceded by any number of other de facto primaries: the Gallup primary, the Harris primary and the Roper primary, to name just a few. Where is Representative John Kasich now? Where is former Governor of California Pete Wilson? Where are George Pataki, Lamar Alexander, Elizabeth Dole? All dreamed of the White House. All strove, to a greater or lesser extent, to get there. All saw their hopes crushed by poll results just as thoroughly as Alan Keyes's and Orrin Hatch's will certainly be by the results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Does anyone imagine that these people would have dropped out of the race if, on the morning of the day of decision, they had picked up the newspaper to discover that they had poll numbers on a level with George W. Bush's? Would Bill Bradley's campaign get the respectful coverage it now receives if he had the undetectable support in the polls enjoyed by Orrin Hatch? Would the press attach the word "quixotic" to Hatch as if it were his middle name if his poll ratings were equal to Bradley's?

A myth has arisen that the primary campaign is driven above all by fundraising, often called the "first primary." The importance of money in politics--and the importance of getting it out, through campaign finance reform--is decidedly great, and the new parallel system that is growing up around the traditional constitutional one would grind to a halt without it. But fundraising is no more the first primary than is New Hampshire. Consider Bush's progress. His rise in the polls began, as mentioned, in late 1997 (the key event was probably Colin Powell's withdrawal from consideration as a presidential candidate that November). Bush's fundraising didn't begin to show its remarkable success until the beginning of 1999. After eight years of Bill Clinton, the Republican Party above all else wanted a winner. It was Bush's consistently high poll numbers--in matchups not only with other Republican candidates but, more important, with Al Gore--that identified him as that winner.

Bush had a double advantage in the polls. First, the fact that he was the son of his father the President gave him (or perhaps gave some blurry composite image of father and son) almost 100 percent name recognition--a result other politicians can strive in vain for a lifetime to achieve. Second, his great popularity in Texas gave him a natural springboard to national popularity. Indeed, in the context of modern politics, the old adage that nothing succeeds like success could be rewritten as nothing succeeds like high poll numbers. With these in hand, all good things--money, endorsements, good news coverage (when did you last read about the "stumbling" of a candidate who had just risen in the polls?)--follow. When Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race, she blamed the influence of money over politics. The more important truth is that she was killed by the polls, in which she remained throughout in single digits. Had they risen above 20 percent, she would have had all the money she needed.

Politicians with low poll numbers like to say that there is only one poll that counts, and that is the poll on Election Day, but they are fooling themselves. If anything, Election Day has become a secondary event, which merely confirms what has been told already by the polls. Of course, if polling were egregiously inaccurate, none of this would be true. But that is not the case. In almost all elections, the final polls tell us, within a few percentage points, what the outcome will be. Elections become the certification that the polls were accurate; in other words, if there were no elections, we'd never know whether we could trust polling.

The elements of the new election system are interdependent. With no television there would of course be no paid television ads. With no paid television ads there would be a greatly reduced need for the immense sums of money. With no need for money, there would be far less opportunity for de facto bribery by the lobbyists. Without the proliferation of the unpaid media there would be no one to discuss the "campaign" for three years before it occurs. Without polling, there would be no events to discuss. Acting together, these elements constitute an apparatus that keeps the campaign going, with or without the interest or participation of the public. They make possible the politics we have today, in which campaigns are so intensely interesting to a growing political class and so deeply boring to the rest of the country.

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