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Democratic Primaries: 2 narratives, 2 different winners?

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By Jerry Lanson

Quick: Which of these two is true?

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One: Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in South Carolina was one more marker of a sharp generational divide in the Democratic Party this presidential primary season, with Obama consistently swamping Sen. Hillary Clinton among 18- to 30-year-olds and Clinton consistently outpolling Obama among the AARP set.

Two: Sen. Barack Obama was swept to victory in South Carolina
on the backs of black pride, taking four of five African-American votes in a state in which half the Democratic voters are black.

The answer, of course, is that both are true. But which one the news media chooses to emphasize could in the end play a significant role in determining who wins the Democratic nomination this year. The race is that close.

That’s right: The press, long a kingmaker and not merely a bystander in presidential politics, has a particularly sensitive and influential role in this election in how it interprets the numbers and to what extent it reports rather than merely echoing campaign spin.

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Fascinating stuff. So let me weigh in early in an effort to influence that decision: Barack Obama’s strong victory among young voters is not a one-time phenomenon. It happened in
Iowa. It happened in New Hampshire. It happened in South Carolina. And like it or not, despite the best efforts of the Billary Clinton campaign to churn the issue, race wasn’t even a factor in those first two largely white states. Or, as James Carville might say (were he not backing the Clintons
), “It’s the generational divide, stupid.”

First, some context. That the media does more than “report the news” in presidential politics is not news. That became clear again when the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that Clinton (first) and Obama (a close second) had each received roughly five times the press coverage of former Sen. John Edwards during the week of Jan. 14 to 20.

Given that Edwards lagged behind the other two in voting in the first two contests (though he barely edged
Clinton in the Iowa caucuses), one could ask, “What came first, his poor showing or the poor coverage?” But most of this survey was taken before Edwards disastrous showing in Nevada. And he most assuredly received far more than one-fifth the vote of either Obama or Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire combined. So I would say the press wrote him off early – perhaps hastening his departure from the race.

I don’t believe this was out of malice or a plot to kill a populist’s campaign. The news media merely love a good story, and Edwards, the third wheel, got in the way of the first serious woman presidential candidate and the first serious African American presidential candidate going head-to-head.

But right now this country needs more than compelling narrative, more than a proliferation of political blogs and journals with headlines such as, “Is America Ready for a Woman or an African-American first?”

Besides, there is a better and more honest story line here. This is a campaign between the past and the future, between an earnest warning that Americans need experience (35 years worth “from Day 1”) and a call for change and hope and government that can cut across party division. It is a campaign between managed, tough, pragmatic government and the poetry of promise, the rhetoric of common good.

American Democrats have a clear choice, one between two candidates who offer compellingly different visions of governing. One happens to be a woman. The other happens to be black.
 But to me, the most compelling story line and fault line between Clinton and Obama is generation, not gender. It’s the different visions of different age groups, not race. It has to do with how the American people want to be governed in the years ahead.

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This story line, too, is well-supported by an analysis of the voting, if the pundits look for it. Three remarkable things beyond Obama’s overwhelming support among African Americans emerged from the South Carolina returns and exit polls. The first is that Obama alone received more total votes than were cast for all candidates in the 2004 Democratic primary. That’s right. In 2004, Democrats cast 294,000 votes. This year Obama alone captured a thousand more and the total Democratic vote topped a half million.

The second is that 100,000 more South Carolinians voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican primary in a state that has been absolutely rock solid Republican in national elections for a long, long time.

And the third is that Barack Obama, according to exit polls, captured two-thirds of the vote of those under age 30 – including 52 percent of young white voters in a state that still flies the Confederate flag.
Clinton in turn captured 40 percent of all the over 65 votes.
  It is this generational divide, its ability to lure new voters to the poll and the strong but contrasting qualities of these candidates that should dominate news commentary between now and Feb. 5. Otherwise the news media will be taking the very bait they have criticized Bill Clinton for dropping along the path in South Carolina.

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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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