A TALK IN THE PARK

September 16, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Greenville, SC—It was an unscientific survey, a show of hands responding to the question: “Which presidential candidate inspires you?”

John McCain? A few here. Rudy Giuliani? A sprinkling among the crowd. Hillary Clinton? Some there. John Edwards? Not too many. Bill Richardson? One on the side. Barack Obama? A solid block of about 20 young, slim arms shot up. Keep that image in mind.

The young people were from the International Relations Club at the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. The setting was Falls Park on the Reedy River, just next door to the school. The “pollster” was Bloomberg News political columnist Al Hunt. The event “A Conversation with Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff”, this year’s installment of a lecture series sponsored by the law firm Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd.

I was there as a moderator. Judy and I had neighboring offices when I was covering presidential campaigns for CNN. Al was also one of the gang leaders of CNN’s “Capital Gang.”

Our conversation kept coming back to the intriguing nature of the youth vote. It’s been a focus of Judy’s recent reporting on “Generation Next 2.0” for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions. The views of young voters provided a key indicator in this past week’s Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll.

As Al recounted, 18 to 29 year old voters are shifting markedly away from the Republican Party. The Republican share dropped in both 2004 and 2006 elections. As Judy explained, this is a uniquely diverse generation.

As a cohort they are more likely to accept interracial dating and gay marriage. They are less likely to be directly connected to the war in Iraq than their counterparts in earlier generations were connected to earlier wars.

They think immigration is a good thing. One in eight has a parent born outside the United States. One in four in this age group is him or herself an immigrant. In many states, including South Carolina, Hispanics are the most rapidly growing ethnic group.

In that context, the show of hands among those high school students in Falls Park should not be surprising. The youthful Barack Obama speaks to their aspirations, sort of speaks their language, and raises no “is America ready to elect a black” anxieties.

I used Al Hunt’s informal survey when talking with about 200 University of South Carolina freshmen a few days later. Same result. Lots of hands for Senator Obama.
I raised the “who interests you” question at the breakfast table to an audience of one teenager who will be old enough to vote in 2008. Same answer. Obama.

I’m no pollster, but it’s something to ponder. Is it just Obama’s own youthful appearance and energy that is getting the attention of young Americans? Is there something more? Many youths reflect their parents’ political persuasion—for a while. But the new voters’ interests, impulses and inclinations are probably more reflective of where American society is headed than are those of my greybeard generation.

Inevitably, someone asks, “ah, but do they vote?” Historically, 18-year-olds have not gone to the polls in the same numbers as their parents and grandparents. Al’s recent column points out that the largest increase in voter participation in 2004 was young voters.

So, if you were a Republican candidate and you knew this generation that’s going to be around for the next few decades is already migrating away from you, would you risk taking them for granted as Election Day no-shows?

And if you were a Democratic candidate—other than Obama—and you’d seen that show of hands the other evening in Greenville and the other afternoon on campus, might you pause to ask “what am I saying that speaks to this generation’s future?”

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Charles Bierbauer covered five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000 for CNN. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.com.

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THE GOOD OLD DAYS

September 12, 2007

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by Charles Bierbauer

Cleveland got me thinking about campaigns past. Or perhaps it was just the music. The Coasters. The Drifters. The Four Seasons. The Four Tops.

The conference I was at had a reception at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Who could resist? Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis. The Big Bopper.

Toe tapping back through the ‘80s, ‘70s, ‘60s and beyond for some reason also reminded me of past campaigns I’d covered, more for their vintage than any hall of fame claim. I recalled linking up with Gary Hart’s campaign in Cleveland in 1984, or was it ’88? Surely I must have been through Cleveland with Ohioan John Glenn. Ronald Reagan. George Bush, the elder, of course. “W” is not yet eligible for hall of fame consideration. After all, rock and rollers are not considered for induction into their hall until 25 years after the release of their first record. Chuck Berry, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith.

Some candidates or their surrogates turned out for last week’s Labor Day parades in the small towns of South Carolina. In the good old days of politics, Labor Day was the campaign’s opening act. Now it’s deep into the elaborate orchestration.

Fred Thompson’s formal announcement this past week is either a throwback to more sensible times or a risky miscalculation. Too little, too late? Or as Walter Mondale asked of Gary Hart back in 1984, where’s the beef?

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened two years later. Ray Charles. Fats Domino. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard.

Twenty years later, rock and roll sounds a lot different. Trust me, I have a teenager. Twenty years later, politics looks a lot different. Mitt Romney. Rudy Giuliani. Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton.

The greatest differences may be the way the campaigns play out their protracted gigs. Just as there are musicians who shine in recording studios and others who soar on tour, there are politicians who gleam in a well-cut campaign ad and others who stand out in a debate crowd. Retail politics is vanishing like old 45 rpm records. The Internet is now a significant factor. Thompson announced his candidacy on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show. Bill Clinton’s campaign theme song was “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” by 1998 Hall of Fame inductee Fleetwood Mac.

Yet in some ways, it now becomes the same, a test of political skills and organization. If we’re lucky with a hint of purpose. It’s September and, by old standards at least, time to start sorting them out. We’ve already seen perhaps a dozen candidate debates. Joe Biden. Chris Dodd. Duncan Hunter. Mike Huckabee.

In less than four months, assuming the states come to terms with their bizarre “me first” jockeying for position on the calendar, we’ll start primary voting. In 1984, Hart vaulted to the front with a strong showing in Iowa and a victory over Mondale in New Hampshire. The pair divided the Super Tuesday states, and Mondale eventually outspent and outlasted Hart. (Hart’s self-destruction over a bit of monkey business came in 1988, but that’s another story.)

As lengthy as this campaign cycle has been, it promises to end in a frenzy. Iowa. New Hampshire. South Carolina. Super Duper Tuesday. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Grateful Dead all on one stage.

All reminiscence, however, has an element of delusion. It’s not 1988. It’s September of 2007, six years since 9/11, five years into a deadly and divisive war, nearly seven years into an increasingly unpopular administration. Iraq is not Vietnam. In fact, Iraq’s long-term consequences could be more dramatic than Vietnam’s.

Vietnam, despite all else, inspired some Hall of Fame performances. Jimi Hendrix’ Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock.

The 2008 campaign is still waiting for a chart topper and a Hall of Fame candidate.

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Charles Bierbauer followed the campaign beat for CNN through five presidential elections from 1984 to 2000. He is now Dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina, though the views here are his own and not those of the university. Bierbauer is senior contributing editor and a consultant to SCHotline.

Get all the latest South Carolinian news, politics and opinion updated 24×7 at SCHotline.com

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