With the four leading candidates in this year’s presidential contest having been an African-American, a female, a Mormon, and a 72 year-old, the diversity envelope was certainly stretched this year. A USA Today/Gallup poll reported last year on the willingness of present-day Americans to select a non-traditional candidate for the presidency compared to responses to a similar survey 40 years ago. The results indicated that the percentage willing to vote for a black or a woman had increased signficantly in the last 40 years, moving from 53% to 94% for a black candidate and moving from 57% to 88% for a female candidate. Given that an African-American candidate and a female candidate were the top Democratic contenders this year, it would seem that we’ve come a long way.
The poll also delved into questions relevant to the Republican ticket, asking voters about their willingness to support a Mormon or a 72 year-old for president. The survey results indicated that the Republican front-runners also faced significant demographic obstacles, with only 72% of the respondents indicating willingness to vote for a Mormon and 57% indicating willingness to vote for a 72 year-old. Gallup reported that the sentiment about electing a Mormon was “essentially unchanged” in 40 years, which seems to indicate that maybe we haven’t come such a long way after all. Add to that the way the topics of race and sex played out during the primary campaigns and it would appear that even the poll numbers from the Democratic primary mask some uncomfortable realities.
Let’s look at some presidential trivia for starters. How many Americans know the middle name of any of the four front-runners, other than Senator Obama? (The other middle names are Diane, Sidney, and Mitt). How many Americans can name the former pastor of more than one of these presidential contenders? Or how many Americans can name any biographical facts about any candidate’s great-grandfather other than Mitt Romney?
Or, if you want even more ridiculous trivia that hopefully fewer Americans can actually answer, what brand of men’s underwear did one journalist claim had been spotted in Mitt Romney’s master bathroom? And, if that seems a bit too ridiculous to believe, a Washington Post staff writer treated us to a discussion of Senator Clinton’s cleavage, and an MSNBC anchor speculated that McCain would be comfortable switching from a discussion of the economy to a discussion about “buying more Depends.”
While we’re on the topic of age, how many Americans can correctly answer the question “Who was the oldest major-party presidential candidate?” If you go to WikiAnswers, you might think it was McCain, though it was actually Ronald Reagan. Or, how many Americans could name the last election in which the president who was elected died before reaching his 80s? (That would be 40 years ago, when LBJ was elected: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and G.H.W Bush all lived long enough to reach 80, though in fairness, the jury is still out on whether Bill Clinton and George W. will live into their 80s).
Of course, we have debates to help keep candidates focused on substantive issues, right? The only problem is that our debates are a bit different from the old-fashioned variety. One hundred fifty years ago we had politicians such as Lincoln and Douglas who, in their famous Senatorial debates, gave lengthy speeches on the pressing topics of the day – including slavery and its relationship to both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, states’ rights, the Dred Scott decision, and racial equality. Lincoln collected these debates into a book of more than 250 pages which was published in advance of the presidential election of 1860. Today, by contrast, we allow for sound-bite answers in response to questions chosen by moderators or audience members. Questions this year have included ones such as the question posed to the Republican candidates regarding whether they believe every word of the Bible, even though one would think it might be more appropriate to ask a presidential candidate whether they believe every word of the Constitution or, even more simply, whether they would defend all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. I think Clinton had it right when she proposed switching from moderated debates to a format more reminiscent of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. We can only hope that McCain and Obama adopt that idea during the general election.
A snippet from a John Quincy Adams campaign song shows the venom that played a part in historical elections:
Little know ye who’s coming if John Quincy not be comin’ … fears are comin’, tears are comin’, plague and pestilence are comin’, hatin’s comin’, Satan’s comin’ if John Quincy not be coming.
So, how far have we come? If the Voting for Satan website is used as a yardstick, it seems we haven’t entirely outgrown the type of political venom in the John Quincy Adams campaign. Admittedly, that website was not an officially endorsed website. However, through the miracle of modern technology, that website probably had more hits than the John Quincy song had listeners. But perhaps there has been some progress after all: our modern electronic media do allow far more people to be reached by debates and written content. Now, if we can only figure out how to spend more time on the Constitution, civil rights, and the economy than we spend on briefs, Depends, and cleavage.