News & Views from 465 California Street

An Election for the Ages

Clint Reilly

Like the greatest games in sports, this presidential election will go down in history as a legendary contest.

Author Teddy White made the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon race into a Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-fiction thriller. Will a contemporary Teddy White emerge to chronicle the drama of campaign 2008?

America loves underdogs, and two of them have risen to the top of their parties’ tickets. World affairs have become dinner table conversation thanks to 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most compelling, an increasingly educated electorate is finding new ways to engage politically.

The 24-hour news cycle has turned the 2008 campaign into reality TV, with cameras trained permanently on the contestants. Fierce debates rage everywhere: on TV, over the radio, in newspapers, throughout the Internet, at the gym and during work.

Everyone from grade-schoolers to auto mechanics and waiters offer loud strategic advice to David Axelrod – Barack Obama’s chief consultant (whom they know by name) – on matters from TV commercial content and debate tactics to opposition research into Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial record.

The armchair quarterback is being replaced by the couch potato campaign guru.

This level of citizen engagement was not always the case. I recall a conversation I had in the late 1970’s with Jerry Burns, the late city editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.  I was a political consultant at the time, and he had been with the paper for many years so I knew him well.

On this particular day, I complained to Jerry that newspapers too often wrote only one story on important political races. He dismissed my frustration with a quick rejoinder, “Clint, readers aren’t interested in politics.”

Jerry may or may not have been correct back then, but I like to think he would be thrilled by people’s passion for politics today.

The polls are bouncing back and forth like the score of a great game. Suspense is building as the winner becomes harder to predict. The outcome may be determined by a mistake, a late-breaking silver-bullet negative, or historic forces like a hurricane, financial collapse or some other unforeseen event. This is no ordinary presidential election.

What makes the contrast between the two tickets so compelling?

First, the candidates are each other’s mirror opposites. The urbane Obama and the rough hewn McCain are both American heroes – of their own generations. Biden is a wise man of Washington and foreign policy gray beard; Palin is the outsider, a female citizen politician challenging the established order.

Second, the election is rising and falling on multiple criteria of choice simultaneously. Presidential races are usually won or lost on ideology, character or effectiveness. But this election also has deep currents of values and gender, which are mobilizing evangelicals, Catholics, gays, and women.

Palin’s candidacy raises more than the standard gender issues; it also raises values questions, given her strong pro-life stance, evangelical Christianity and five children.

Third, race and class provide a multi-layered subtext to this election. How an Ivy League-educated African American candidate plays with working class whites in industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania is a running talk show theme.

America is deeply stratified economically, and the parties’ stances on economic matters like the recession and tax policy impact working-, middle- and upper-middle class voters differently – not just the rich. In this election, perceptions of the candidates’ agendas vary widely by job and income.

Fourth, this election has captured the attention of young voters. A generational clash looms, which may evoke unprecedented turnout among teens and twenty-somethings. The traditional rule that stakeholders such as homeowners and taxpayers dominate elections may be broken by a generation motivated by their stake in an uncertain future.

I will cast my vote for Barack Obama. But regardless of who wins, we will all be talking about this presidential election for the rest of our lives.

Comments (5)

  • No one cares who you vote for. I am voting for McCain.

    Posted by: kapellas | September 16th, 2008 at 10:29 am

  • Hey, Clint, look forward to reading you in our Daily Review every Tuesday.
    Say, can you clarify something for me? My son was mentioning the other day that the polls are not very reliable in that they do not have access to cellphone numbers. And since almost everyone under the age of 30 has only a cellphone and not a landline how accurate can they be? My wife and I have cellphones (and we’re in our 70′s) and have disposed of our landline.
    And our son and daughter have also closed down their landline, and our four grandkids once they left for college simply use their cellphones only.

    Posted by: Grayson | September 16th, 2008 at 1:18 pm

  • if you have his e-mail address please write and encourage him to dump Biden and appoint Hillary which he should have done in the first place OR say he will appoint her as Secretary of State. We have to combat McCain and PALIN–SUCH A DISASTER!

    Posted by: Shirley | September 17th, 2008 at 12:00 am

  • I enjoyed your column, and this truly IS an election for the ages. And I admire you for stating that you will vote for Obama. But I think your piece was WAY understated.

    Posted by: Jeff | September 17th, 2008 at 7:22 am

  • Just over a month long from today we’ll witness a Presidential Election on 11-4-08 that whispers for big reforms to some politicians in congress. I’m a democratic voter but maybe until the election on November ’08 I cannot say Barack Obama will win. The democratic party is a destroyed party, the Party VIP’S were splitted, like the negative group (kennedy, kerry, etc.) versus clinton. From the primary campaign and the selection for the vice presidental running mate Obama failed to pick Hillary because of the negative group. So, because of the party’s problem I loss the democratic vote on november. And because of this internal conflict of the democratic party as if I could see the republican party will be victorous and not the democratic party in this coming election.

    Posted by: Jimm1125 | September 17th, 2008 at 6:25 pm

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