They Only Look Alive

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POLITICS FEBRUARY 14, 2000

They Only Look Alive

Forget John McCain—the biggest winner in the New Hampshire primary was the media. Terrified that George W. Bush and Al Gore would sew up their parties’ nominations before the snow melted, sentencing the Fourth Estate to a breathtakingly boring six-month non-campaign, journalists went to bed last Monday night with their hands clasped skyward and the words “McCain-Bradley upset” on their lips. When the challengers did better than expected, the press duly paid homage to the miracle before them, investing the events of February 1 with world-historical significance. The New York Daily News’s Lars-Erik Nelson called McCain’s win “one of the most stunning political upsets in the nation’s history and one of the most important.” On The Washington Post’s op-ed page, William Kristol pronounced the “old order” dead and breathlessly heralded “a new politics for the new millennium.”

Gentlemen, stop your engines. New Hampshire is just New Hampshire. It puts the fear of God into front-runners almost every presidential election year, and almost every year those front-runners right themselves a few states later. And this happens for a reason: New Hampshire is politically weird. Its Democrats aren’t much like other Democrats, and its Republicans aren’t much like other Republicans. And the things that make them unusual are precisely the things that make them uniquely hospitable to candidates like Bill Bradley and McCain.

Look at New Hampshire’s demographics and two facts jump out. First, its citizens are remarkably well-off. New Hampshire ranks thirteenth in the nation in median income. Second, New Hampshire’s citizens are unusually well-educated. These facts matter because the well-off and the well-educated worry less about bread-and-butter issues and more about ethereal concerns such as probity in government and ethical conduct on the stump. It’s among these voters that Bradley’s above-the-fray demeanor and McCain’s straight talk play best. What’s more, New Hampshire shares with its Yankee neighbors a historical predisposition to high-minded appeals and reformist crusades. It’s no coincidence that three of the four states to pass public-financing initiatives are in New England.

But New Hampshire doesn’t have many of the ideologically driven activists who dominate primaries in much of the rest of the country—people for whom outcome trumps process. Social conservatives, the GOP rank and file in much of the South and Midwest, are a virtual nonentity in the Granite State. Hence Tuesday’s meager showings—six percent and one percent, respectively—for Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. In New Hampshire, McCain’s persistent waffling on abortion didn’t hurt him a bit. In South Carolina and Michigan, it will.

Similarly, on the Democratic side, the labor machine that Gore rode to victory in Iowa—and which he will surely rely on elsewhere—is weak in New Hampshire: only eleven percent of Granite Staters are unionized, compared with 14 percent of the nation as a whole. Moreover, New Hampshire is 97 percent white, and Gore trounces Bradley among African Americans. Just as McCain’s “I will tell you when I disagree” message doesn’t work with religious conservatives, because they care more about the substance of those disagreements than about his honesty in acknowledging them, minorities and union members aren’t attracted to Bradley’s anti-pandering image. After all, pandering never seems so bad when it’s directed at you.

Of course, frustration with politics as usual exists everywhere. But, outside New Hampshire, it’s more likely to be drowned out by concerns about the economy, health care, education, or Social Security. In a recent Fox News poll, two-thirds of national voters ranked one of those issues as their most important political concern. And campaign finance reform, the cornerstone of the Bradley and McCain campaigns? Just one percent.

For McCain and Bradley to win in the states to come, they will have to beat their opponents on policy, not just process. And that’s unlikely. McCain is disliked by social conservatives, and he still defers many substantive questions by saying that campaign finance reform will make the solutions obvious. Bradley, for his part, did well in the meta-debate—newspapers agreed that Gore was distorting his record. But on the issues themselves—particularly health care—polls showed him losing.

The reality is that Bush and Gore remain huge favorites to win their parties’ nominations—not simply because of money and endorsements but because they have fashioned candidacies based upon the interests of the people who most often vote in Democratic and Republican primaries. The media can celebrate that reality or bemoan it, but they can only ignore it for a little while. Journalists should savor their victory in New Hampshire. It’s likely to be their last.

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posted in: politics, al gore, bill bradley, george w. bush, john mccain, lars-erik nelson, william kristol, new hampshire

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