Tea Leaves and Exit Polls

Election '04

Super Tuesday's glitter is not gold--for there are plenty of warning signs for John Kerry's campaign in the primary exit poll results.

Take the hot-button social issue of attitudes toward lesbians and gays. Even in the two huge liberal states--New York and California--one out of five Democrats were flat-out opposed to both same-sex marriage and gay civil unions. And 27 percent held that view in Maryland. The gay marriage issue will only snowball in importance as the head-to-head Bush-Kerry confrontation becomes full-blown, thanks to the Bush-Rove decision to exploit the anti-gay backlash and the growing and well-financed propaganda campaigns by the Christian right's "independent" organizations.

But it's not only these conservative homophobes who'll be keeping this issue in the headlines. In New York, the Green mayor of New Paltz, N.Y. has just been indicted on 19 misdemeanor counts for performing gay weddings without marriage licenses, while at the same time the Democratic mayor of Ithaca has begun sending same-sex marriage licenses to the state Health Department for approval in the anticipation that they will be refused, in order to set up a court challenge to that refusal. The next city to hit the headlines on this issue may well be the nation's capitol: Washington, D.C.'s mayor--a long-time supporter of gay marriage--has asked the city's corporation counsel to find a way for him to perform gay marriages with the maximum chances of legality.

In Ohio, the numbers of those in Tuesday's primary opposed to any civil approval of gay couples were much larger: "A plurality of Democrats, 38 percent, said there 'should be no legal recognition' of unions between gay people," according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. That number is highly significant because Ohio was the only November battleground state on the Super Tuesday ballot. If that many members of his own party shun gay couples, Kerry's muddled and self-contradictory positions on the issue will probably play even worse among the non-Democrats crucial to winning other states like Ohio (since the latest poll on the issue, by the Associated Press, shows that two-thirds of the country is opposed to same-sex marriage).

Just last week, Kerry flipped on this issue again: after having opposed an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution in a letter to the state legislature signed by the Bay State's Democratic Congressional delegation just two years ago, Kerry has now endorsed adding a ban on gay marriages to the state Constitution this year. Since Kerry has opposed the anti-gay Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which Bush has now endorsed, his "I'm-for-it-but-I'm-against-it" tap dance on the gay marriage issue makes Kerry look shifty and undermines the Democrats' attempts to make Bush's credibility an issue.

Credibility is already a problem for Kerry in conservative-to-moderate Ohio: the exit polls there revealed that he lost Democrats who said their most important issue was whether a candidate was "honest and trustworthy" by 48 percent for Edwards to 36 for Kerry (and this even though Edwards had neither the money nor the time to put on much of a campaign in the state and was trounced there 52 percent to 34 percent). Moreover, the Kerry likeability gap evident in previous primary exit polls was also on display in Ohio Tuesday night: he lost those who said the most important issue was that a candidate "cares about me" to Edwards 46 to 40 percent.

These are undoubtedly some of the reasons that the Super Tuesday exit polls revealed a significant Kerry weakness among independents: he lost them in Ohio to Edwards by 42 to 39 percent. In Maryland, Kerry won independents by only 3 points. And in Georgia--where a whopping 48 percent of primary voters opposed any legal recognition of either gay marriage or civil unions--Kerry lost independents to Edwards by a huge margin, 51 to 32 percent. Kerry needs to do a lot better among independents than these numbers to have a prayer of beating Bush.

In other Super Tuesday news, Howard Dean's victory in Vermont was not terribly surprising. Not only was there a backlash against media pummeling of the state's favorite son (in endless on-air replays of the "I Have a Scream" speech, among other things), but Vermonters who knew Dean well from his 10 years as governor as a cautious centrist never bought into the national media's portrayal of the doctor as a feisty left-liberal rebel. Indeed, a must-read, detailed behind-the-curtain post-mortem on the Dean campaign in the Feb. 29 Washington Post confirmed my analysis in this space that the positions which Joe Trippi tried to graft onto the governor were never Dean's own. For example, Dean's closest and most influential confidante, longtime chief of staff Kate O' Connor, admitted to Howard Kurtz that the Trippi-crafted attacks on special interests "was not a message that was true to who Howard Dean was."

This has a lot of significance for the future of the Democrats' left-progressive wing, for--as the Feb. 27 Boston Globe reported--there is a "behind-the-scenes struggle" between Dean and Trippi "as they jockey for control of the campaign's bounty of grass-roots supporters." The Dean movement was always to the left of its candidate, so it's more than doubtful that Dean will try to mold the 630,00 people on his campaign e-mail list into a permanent electoral vehicle capable of fighting primaries against more conservative Democrats. But Trippi (known as the "$7 million man" for the amount his consulting firm was paid for creating and placing Dean's ads) seems an equally unlikely catalyst for crystallizing the Deaniacs into a lasting and truly progressive electoral force. Nor is it likely that the Dean blogosphere can coagulate on its own without coherent direction from the top.

And if the Deaniacs are asked to become simply an adjunct of the Democratic National Committee, many of them--particularly the younger and more activist cohorts who were attracted to Dean by his Trippi-scripted, anti-Washington-politics-as-usual message--may simply drop out again from the political process. That's not good news for the Democrats' November chances either.

Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator.

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