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August 2, 2004, 12:00 P.M.

Packaging the Presidency: The press coverage of the recent Democratic National convention, and the Presidential election in general, suggests that this years race coverage will be less about substance and more about style and fluff than ever before. I don’t expect that the Republican National Convention will be much different.

The major broadcast networks barely covered the DNC and their Nielson ratings apparently suggested a real lack of interest in the convention on the part of their viewers. I would like to think that this lack of interest stems from the unanimity of the convention and the lack of controversy over the nomination of Kerry and Edwards, but I suspect that there is a less substantive reason behind the general malaise surrounding the process. A lot of it has to do with the fact that this country is very polarized right now and a very small segment of our population could well decide who our next president will be. The result is that the campaigns are soft peddling certain issues for fear of alienating the all important undecided voters.

This manifests itself in several ways. Primarily, news starved 24 hour cable sources are left to explore the lives and personal histories of candidates in order to fill time. There is little actual discussion or comparison of the respective platforms of the candidates or the parties and the age old move to the center following the nomination has started early and with a vengeance. The media facilitates this move when its focus is on the packaging and not the content.

More than in past years, this is a close presidential race. The Democrats and some cross over republicans are focused on an “anybody but Bush campaign.” There is a visceral hatred for Bush that is comparable to the hatred felt by many Republicans for Bill Clinton. Although there is no such passionate dislike of Kerry, there is an equally committed following for the president and a strong contingent who want to see a continuation of the presidents policies. Neither of these groups are likely to change their minds. They will vote the way they decided to vote long ago regardless of the fact that their particular candidate is their first choice. What that leaves is a small but powerful portion of the electorate that, for myriad different reasons, is not enamored of either candidate.

The election right now is all about getting elected. The political waters are deep and treacherous where the undecided voters dwell and as a result, the campaigns prefer that the media continue to soft sell on issues. The Campaigns are working to reach about 10% of the population, with the other 90% committed to one candidate or the other. Because this 10% of the population is so diverse, the campaigns are trying desperately to avoid taking strong positions on any issues in order avoid driving the undecided voters into the other camp. The natural result of trying to get elected in this environment is a sort of milk toast politics that fails to effectively define the candidates.

For George Bush, his stance on issues important to his fundamentalist religious base has alienated him from a portion of his traditional constituency. These voters are not going to go over to the Kerry camp: the most Kerry can hope for is that they will stay home in protest. Kerry on the other hand has a strong anti war contingent who are not pleased with his position on completing the mission in Iraq. Here again, these people are not going to vote for Bush, but they might see an alternative in Nader. What is left is a group of non party loyalists who can be swayed or persuaded to vote for one candidate or another based on a whole lot of different factors. Based on the media coverage of the election campaigns so far, those reasons range from personal background and military service to hair styles and family anecdotes. What is missing is a good solid discussion about where the country will be economically, militarily and as a player on the world political stage in the next four years. As long as the media lets the campaigns focus on the marketing of candidates as a product, rather than on the substance of their ideas and the strength of their platforms, we will not have and honest and open debate about ideas, we will have a beauty contest and nothing more.

Were I an undecided voter, there are a lot of substantive questions that I would like to have answered. Admittedly, I don’t think they play very well for the current administration when the economy is performing poorly for everyone but the most wealthy, when we are losing soldiers daily in a war we entered under false pretenses, and when we are operating our government under historically large deficits. I hope that these questions get asked and answered this fall, but hey, that’s just me.

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