September 29, 2000

One Nation Divisible — Why This Year's Election Is No National Affair

By Richard Rodriguez

This year's presidential election has already been stolen by the pollsters.

The pollsters pulling Al Gore's and George Bush's campaigns are the true advance team, always one step ahead of either candidate's speechwriters, several days ahead of their candidate's position paper, a week ahead of a candidate's formulation of his most deeply held conviction.

Pollsters keep politicians in touch with America. The argument goes: In a country as vast as ours, who else but a pollster can convey to a candidate what's bothering Paula (white, divorced, two kids under 18) in Peoria?

With their segmented grasp of America, pollsters have made a national political campaign nearly impossible or irrelevant. In this year's presidential campaign where Pennsylvania is a state too close to call for either party, and California and Texas are thought safe for the Democrats and the Republicans respectively, it's off to Pittsburgh we go! Rather, they go.

Maybe there is no United States of America anymore, and the pollsters are the ones who fully understand that fact? Maybe there is no need for a national conversation because we can all be dissected into niche market groups.

The archaic electoral college system becomes strangely post-modern. Running for president is no different than looking for one of those segmented audience or market groups, that retailers and magazine publishers and television networks want to find.

After all, dollars are finite. Pollsters divine the media markets in which the candidates should concentrate ad dollars. So here we are, nearing the end of September, and millions of Americans — a majority—have yet to see an ad for either presidential candidate, though most media analysis of the campaign focuses upon the efficacy of ads most Americans will never see.

I suppose that's good news for the majority of us. I pity television viewers in Illinois who are gored and bushed to death every time they turn on the box. But watching the campaigns from the distance of a "safe" state, it's hard for me to regard this year's presidential election campaign as a national affair.

In an Illinois union hall, Vice-President Gore, shirt-sleeves rolled, plays the populist. Whereas we Californians read in the paper that, during the night, Gore has passed through to suck up dollars in Beverly Hills and the Silicon Valley.

Then there's George Bush. Months ago, during the California primary, Bush went up and down California — the largest state in the union, and the largest immigrant state — speaking en espanol about immigration and global markets.

But now it is September. When an eager and unprecedented association of ethnic newspaper and broadcasting journalists — the New California Media — offers the globalist Bush a forum to discuss America and the world, the Republican candidate is too busy discussing the cost of prescription drugs in Indiana.

So it goes. We are long past the days when a candidate promised to visit every state in the union during a presidential campaign. (Richard Nixon was the last to try that gambit.)

With this year's campaign we seem to be returning to a gas-lit, cobblestone America, a disconnected nation of great distances and rumors, the country before the jet airplane, when most presidential campaigns took place in several states east of the Mississippi.

No coincidence is it that each of the three presidential debates will take place well to the right of the Continental Divide. To put it bluntly, Colorado does not figure in this year's election; Kentucky matters.

Forida matters!

The latest word from the pollsters is that Florida is a toss-up. So the two campaign planes will head for Miami. Expect Bush to talk to Cuban Americans in Spanish about "little Elian." Expect Gore, across town, at a senior citizen's social hall, talking about making prescription drugs less expensive for seniors.

All of us, in all fifty states, have to endure several more weeks of this pre-modern and post-modern campaigning. For we are now deep in the age of the pollster.

In January, one man or the other will take the oath of office. We will hear ghost-written rhetoric about our nation indivisible. But the truth is that the nation is divisible by the pollsters. And the man with the best pollsters will become the president of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Richard Rodriguez is an author and essayist.

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