What about John Edwards? The big media portrays the Democratic race as a death match between the Clinton machine and the Obama phenom. Edwards comes off as a plodder in the shadow of two glamour pusses.
Back in the world of plain people, the story looks somewhat different. A new Des Moines Register poll shows 28 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers preferring Barack Obama, 25 percent for Hillary Clinton and 23 percent for Edwards. That sounds like a three-way race to me.
Also consider the caucus rules. Within a caucus site, people whose candidate gets less than 15 percent of the total can throw their support to another contender. Edwards now leads the Democratic pack as the likely participants’ second choice, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.
The former senator from North Carolina seems definitely in the game. So why is the race commonly seen as a two-titan contest? The easy explanation, that much of the media are lazy, would not be far off. But something else is going on.
We live in a political culture dominated by celebrity journalists covering celebrity politicians. Big media want to consort with the big stars — currently New York Sen. Clinton (plus Bill) and the charismatic Illinois Sen. Obama (with Oprah in his entourage).
One recalls Angela Lansbury’s quip when television executives in Los Angeles canceled her very popular show. “Nobody in this town watches ‘Murder, She Wrote,’” the actress said. “Only the public watches.”
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden recently hit the nail on the noggin as he explained why a candidate as experienced as he gets so little attention. After all, polls show that in a general election, Biden would run even with leading Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani.
Democrats, Biden said, have a talented woman and a talented African-American, and “they’ve sort of sucked all the oxygen out of the air.” A white man does not fit into the storyline. That could be Edwards’ problem, as well.
Edwards was all over New Hampshire last week, talking to average citizens. The people who filled the Bow Town Hall on a slushy Monday morning were neither rich nor poor, but they definitely felt left out. Edwards’ theme of putting middle-class interests at the center of American policy seemed to hit home. As Edwards warned the crowd not to “trade corporate Republicans for corporate Democrats,” people nodded.
“I’d like to hear smaller voices heard, as opposed to the lobbyists,” Anne Dupre, a 34-year-old mother of two, told me. Dupre is an independent whose family is “very Republican.”
Also in the audience was Louis Duval, a 67-year-old technician who has been laid off more than once. In a non-question to Edwards, he demanded that American consumers dump imported products, “like the tea party.” An independent, Duval wouldn’t tell me whom he’ll vote for.
In Iowa, Edwards supporter Skip McGill suspects that the media have used fund raising as the yardstick for a candidate’s viability. McGill is president of the United Steelworkers Local 105 in Bettendorf, whose national union has endorsed Edwards.
“They were not looking at what people where thinking and saying as about bank accounts,” McGill said. “The other two definitely have money, and I wish it was not about money.”
He says friends on other campaigns have come to his side after hearing Edwards speak. Edwards has hit all 99 of Iowa’s counties.
“One friend said it in a funny way,” McGill remarked. “He said, ‘Skip, I drank the Kool-Aid.’”
The big-gun cameras rarely focus on less glamorous candidates discussing middle-class anxieties in small auditoriums and town halls. That’s why they don’t watch Edwards the way they do Clinton and Obama. Only the public watches.
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.