Does Iowa matter? Maybe, maybe not. My advice in the weeks to come: Don’t let the giddiness of the campaign coverage distract from what will really matter.
Instead, pay attention to three issues that could affect the outcome of the election, even though they have nothing to do with the campaigns themselves:
First, a surge in voting restrictions: In 2011, 14 states passed laws making it harder for certain Americans, particularly minorities and young people, to vote. The goal is to keep traditional Democratic constituencies from casting ballots, and methods include requiring voters to show government-issued IDs (which more than 1 in 10 Americans lack), reducing or ending early voting, and disenfranchising citizens with criminal records.
In Texas, for example, a concealed handgun license is a sufficient form of voter identification, but a university ID isn’t. In Wisconsin, a voter without an ID needs a birth certificate to get one, but a voter without a birth certificate needs a valid ID to obtain one. In Tennessee, a 96-year-old African-American woman was denied a free voter ID because she didn’t have a copy of her marriage license. NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous has described the efforts as the most coordinated attack on voting rights since the days of Jim Crow.
Indeed, a Brennan Center for Justice analysis found that as many as 5 million eligible voters will find it “significantly harder” to cast ballots. Of the 12 most likely battleground states, five have curtailed voting rights, and two are considering doing so. The 2012 election may well turn on how many traditionally Democratic voters are unable to cast ballots in critical states and on whether the Justice Department is able to fight back, as it did recently in South Carolina.
Second, the rise of super PAC spending: Among the most devastating consequences of the 2010 Citizens United ruling is the rise of organizations that are not required to disclose their donors but that can recruit and spend unlimited sums in direct support of candidates. Thus far, these super PACs have reported spending nearly $7 million. Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 told USA Today that the organizations represent “the most dangerous vehicles for corruption in American politics today.”
While super PACs may not coordinate directly with campaigns, there is little means of effectively enforcing that rule. The treasurer of Mitt Romney’s super PAC, which spent $3.1 million in Iowa running mostly negative ads against his opponents, served as chief financial officer of Romney’s first presidential campaign. Jon Huntsman’s super PAC, which has spent $1.9 million, is bankrolled, at least in part, by his father. President Barack Obama’s super PAC is run by Bill Burton, his 2008 press secretary and a close adviser who left his White House post to gear up for the election.
The question about super PACs is not whether they will have an impact but how big it will be and whether a people-powered movement can stop them.
Third, the media’s obsession with false equivalence: How the election is covered will almost certainly have a measurable impact on its outcome.
The New York Times’ Paul Krugman describes what he’s witnessing as “post-truth politics,” in which right-leaning candidates can feel free to say whatever they want without being held accountable by the press. There may be instances in which a candidate is called out for saying something outright misleading; but, as Krugman notes, “if past experience is any guide, most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced.’ “For too many journalists, calling out a Republican for lying requires criticizing a Democrat too, making for a media age where false equivalence — what Eric Alterman has called the mainstream media’s “deepest ideological commitment” — is confused, again and again, with objectivity.
In that world, candidates can continue to say things that are “flatly, grossly, and shamefully untrue,” as The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne described it, without fear of retribution. Obama has traveled the world and “apologized for America,” says Romney. Except that, no, he hasn’t. The stimulus “created zero jobs,” says Rick Perry. Except that it created or saved at least 3 million. Obama is going to “put free enterprise on trial,” claims Romney. How does he square that with the nearly 3 million private-sector jobs created under Obama policies in the past 20 months? But in this media era, he doesn’t have to square anything at all.
These three factors are key not only to understanding this campaign and election but to seeing just how far we have to go to reclaim a democracy that is driven by the people themselves.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation magazine.