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Elections or reality TV?

This Tuesday marked the 6,812th debate among the Republican Party candidates vying for the nomination to contest against American President Barack Obama for the presidential elections November 4, 2012. Anirudh Bhattacharyya writes.

india Updated: Oct 21, 2011 23:28 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times

This Tuesday marked the 6,812th debate among the Republican Party candidates vying for the nomination to contest against American President Barack Obama for the presidential elections on November 4. November 4, 2012, that is. Okay, it may not have been the 6,812th debate, it just seems that way.

We live in an age when revolutions are always televised, and even the establishment gets its face time, as these debates show.

Just how significant are these debates, at this time? Well, around the same time back in 2007, among the major Republican candidates were former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Senator-turned-Hollywood actor Fred Thompson. Arizona Senator John McCain’s campaign was financially flaming out and he was left wheeling his own bags in airports.

As for the Democrats, the pundits were clear that New York Senator Hillary Clinton was the chosen one and no one could rage against her machine.

The principal campaign issue was the war in Iraq.

We all know how well that played out.

At least, the maws of the giant slavering news television beast were being fed. The anchors could well have screamed out: “People, get your 15 minutes here.”

Those who are getting theirs this year include former Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann; Newt Gingrich, policy guy and the adult in the room; Herman Cain, also known as Mr 9-9-9; Rick Perry, who blazed in as a favourite but is sinking faster than the Obama economy; and current front-runner Mitt Romney, who never really stopped running since he entered the previous race in 2008.

This isn’t really an election; it’s reality TV, something like ‘Survivor: Washington DC’ or ‘Occupy This Television’. In other words, reality bites. Think of the thousands of talking heads exploding during the last week before major elections in India, and you’ll get an idea of the 18-month extravaganza these cycles are.

Before Tuesday’s CNN debate, one producer said while content was important, their goal was “to produce a really beautiful TV show”. That’s exactly why candidates fuss over their ties and wardrobes, are coached in speaking styles, are coiffed and botoxed. Crank up the opening theme to American Idol, Season 2012.

This year, of course, the focus is on the Republican candidates since the Democratic Party is expected to nominate Obama, unopposed.

And it’s not just the debates. It’s also about the primaries and caucuses the parties hold to choose their nominees. Usually, Iowa goes first, in early January, followed by New Hampshire, then Nevada and South Carolina. In 2008, Iowa held its polls while barely into the New Year since other states had moved theirs up. This year, as Nevada wants an earlier go at the cameras, New Hampshire has threatened to hold its primary earlier, perhaps even as early as the first week of December this year. It probably won’t, but anyway, if it does you could have Iowa deciding on a November date to maintain its ‘First in the Nation’ status.

Given these circumstances, you might as well have the presidential and campaign primary cycles begin as soon as a new president is elected.

And how important are these primaries beyond the televised drama? In 1976, on the Democratic side, Iowans elected Uncommitted (Jimmy Carter, who later was elected president, got 9% less votes). But presidential candidates take Iowa seriously. Former Senator Chris Dodd, for instance, moved his family to the state for months before the caucus. He ended up with zero per cent of the vote.

This year’s Dodd, former Republican Governor of Utah and former US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, has moved his headquarters to New Hampshire. According to a recent poll, Huntsman had secured zero per cent support there.

But the primaries are important to the Dodds and the Huntsmans because they get national exposure. And just as important to cities like Des Moines, Iowa and Manchester, New Hampshire, that no one would otherwise have heard of, probably with good reason.

Hey, no matter, get the popcorn out, the show’s still going on, and there may be another debate soon!

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 21, 2011 23:25 IST