Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thoughts on Tuesday's primary

Well, I really blew it on Super Tuesday. In a post on February 5th, 2008, I wrote:
Today, one of my students asked me where he could vote in Indiana's Super Tuesday primary. He was despondent when I told him that Indiana doesn't vote until May--about a week before Guam, and long after the Presidential nominations probably will be sewn up.

Who would have predicted back then that the primary season would still be going strong (for Democrats, anyway) come May? I hadn't, clearly, and I pretty much had resigned myself to having essentially no say in who the Democratic nominee will be. I'm thrilled, therefore, about this Tuesday's Indiana primary. I hear it's the first time in 40 years that the state will play a meaningful role in the Presidential nominating process. It'll truly be an historic day.

It's interesting to have experienced two significant Presidential primaries now--one at the front end of the process, the other, at the back end. In 1992, I was living in New Hampshire, home of the nation's first primary. The Democratic field was wide-open, and the state was abuzz with a dozen or so candidates. The late Paul Tsongas was the front-runner at the time, and I saw him deliver a speech at the UNH Memorial Union Building. The smallish room, where I often heard local bands play, was drab and poorly lit. Tsongas looked fine, but he was neither especially well-appointed nor particularly well-groomed. There was a decent turnout for the event, which was simple and straight-forward: he showed up, we clapped, he spoke, we clapped again, and we all went our separate ways. I vaguely recall that Tsongas seemed to have lacked energy. I'm sure there must have been some media presence, but no doubt the reporters were spread thin, given the size of the field that year.

Fast-forward to 2008. Last Wednesday, I attended a rally for Barack Obama at Indiana University's Assembly Hall. This is the IU basketball stadium. If you know anything about basketball in the state of Indiana, you should have some sense of the size of the event. The venue wasn't exactly filled to capacity, but it was close. Pretty much the only empty seats were in the nosebleed section. The floor was so densely packed that EMTs carted off three or four Obama supporters who, needing fresh air and a reprieve from the heat, had fainted. (In a particularly kind-hearted gesture, Obama tossed his own water bottle into the crowd, to help keep others from passing out.) The whole event was carefully choreographed, all the way down to the homemade looking signs that Obama's campaign staff had provided to the group selected to sit behind him on stage. There were also a capella groups, who entertained us during the two-and-a-half hour lead up to the event, and inflatable beach balls, which the audience knocked around as though were were at an arena rock concert. Oh--and did I mention that among the throng of reporters, there even was a correspondent from The Daily Show? He stood out because of the glittery blue cape he wore over his suit jacket.

As for Obama, he didn't look like someone who's been campaigning for 18 months, that's for sure. He showed up in his shirt-sleeves, and though his appearance may have seemed somewhat relaxed, it nonetheless didn't appear too casual. That is, to me he still read, "politician," and commanded just that sort of attention. His speech may have begun at 9:00 p.m., yet he seemed as fresh and as energetic as if he'd begun speaking at 9:00 a.m. The rally concluded not only with resounding applause, big smiles, and lots of audience glad-handing, but also with Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" blaring over the stadium PA.

It would be easy enough to wax cynical about how spectacular last week's Obama event was, compared to the Tsongas rally I attended 16 years ago. But what, after all, would be the point of that? Indeed, what's remarkable to me is how much more audience minded Presidential campaigns have become over the last two decades. Sure, a lot of it may be gimmicky, but I'm nonetheless stuck by how invested people seem to be in this particular Presidential election. To put it simply, I don't recall people being as interested in a Presidential nomination--or politics writ large--in my entire adult life. This is a welcome breakthrough indeed.

Surely this resurgent interest in politics has everything to do with the many serious issues facing not only the United States but also the world today. But those issues can easily seem abstract absent certain techniques to get folks riled up about them. Though I've not had the good fortune of attending a Clinton rally, that's surely what I saw at Obama's.

Tuesday's your day, Indiana, the last you may have in a looooooong time. Make it count, an keep the momentum going!

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