In an election year, candidates often want to talk about “the issues,” but more often than not, campaigns will ditch the boring talk for talking smack about each other. It’s a game of misdirection based on a good reading of what captures the imagination of the typical voter. Like many political watchers, I’m atypical when it comes to TV news, reading the paper, or which sites I regularly read for what I consider good political analysis. Yes, I read the New York Times almost every day, and yes I would rather watch The Newshour with Jim Lehrer than my local TV news or the nightly news from the Big Three. And yes, I read academic journals for the really geeky stuff. However, staying too long in the realm of political junkies comes at a cost: alienation from the political mainstream, and frustration with the way people are easily manipulated.

Case in point: there’s quite a bit of hot air about the presidential race and how the lack of a presumptive nominee in the Democratic Party is hurting the chances of Hillary or Barack to become the next president. We’re at the beginning of April, the Republican and Democratic conventions haven’t even happened, yet there’s a lot of nervous nailbiting among Democrats who think the election is already lost.

McCain is many things, but he’s no idiot when it comes to politics. The hand-waving from Karl Rove after McCain reached the magic number of delegates to secure the nomination was a Three-Card Monte move to give Dems a false sense of security. What was it that Rove said (and was repeated in the echo chamber)? His view was that because McCain was now the frontrunner (sorry, Ron Paul supporters), his coverage in the media was going to wane as the American Idol competition between Barack and Hillary continued. Ha, bloody, ha. If anything, it has boosted McCain’s profile as many in the media have grown tired of writing the ongoing saga of “who’s up, who’s down” between B and N. Lately, there have been a number of “McCain as presidential” stories floating to the top of the political pages. McCain in Iraq … McCain talking about the economy … McCain talking about public service, and it all comes without much criticism from the press. Sure, Obama responded to McCain’s policy prescriptions to the economic recession we’re in, but what is happening right now is that many in the media are looking at McCain and framing a story that goes something like this: “Chapter 1. McCain is the 44th President of the United States.”

For Hillary or Barack to turn this story around, they are going to have to split their attack strategy and remind voters why another Republican administration is going to be a horrible thing for the country, hammer home the fact that the last 7 years under Bush have been a boon for everyone but vast majority of Americans, and then start talking about the following issues:

1. Ending the war in Iraq.
2. Finding and/or killing bin Laden.
3. Addressing the economic crisis caused by Republican polices.
4. Restoring our liberties that have eroded under Bush.
5. Paying down our debt in order to restore financial stability and independence.
6. Investing money into industries that will make the U.S. less oil dependent.

There are other issues (and variations thereof) that Dems need to hammer home. The point is that the average voter has a very limited attention span; they don’t bother with an in-depth analysis of issues, nor do they really care about the details a particular candidate has on a position paper. What will resonate is that a candidate has a vision of how they will make things better for the majority of people. By “better,” mean bread and butter issues, security, and an end to a war that has no end in sight — other than more death. Hillary and Barack may personally like John McCain, but they need to go after his foreign policy (i.e., play down terrorism and play up another Cold War with Russia), and present an alternative to what he’s selling. In short, turn the “we don’t have a front-runner yet” bullshit into a story about the American democratic process.

Since presidential campaigns are also media campaigns, a quick glance at what the media is serving up (and what we’re consuming) may be telling when it comes to politics.

One thing is clear: the U.S. is a country that loves violence — except when actual Americans die. We love violent sports, we love the softer conflicts of singing competitions, reality shows, and people trapped on a tropical island of Hobbesian dimensions. Sure you can point to 60 Minutes as an example that people are paying attention to the news, and I won’t argue. However, 60 Minutes is the only news program on the broadcast top 10. It’s a well-produced program, and while they can easily be accused of bias (And really, who can’t these days?), they consistently produce programming that is more informative than 99% of what cable news churns out. But really, the majority of the programming that people are tuning into is designed to distract people from the fact that their lives are not all that great. If their collective gaze and pent-up frustrations can be turned to the importance of the singing competition, a wrestling match, a cop show, or a sponge who lives at bottom of the sea, then, perhaps, a level of passivity will pervade. But there’s another aspect to this as well. It’s ability of people to latch on to something that is compelling, consistent, and comforting when projected through the TV screen. That devotion comes when you have certain elements in play: a message + frequency + time = a brand that people become devoted to.

If many in the press are already anointing McCain as the next president (reinforcing the “comfort” factor), that means the campaign messages that Hillary and Barack’s camp are projecting may be compelling, but they hardly satisfy the other two planks in what makes for an effective message.

Black Flag, “TV Party” (Download)