March 6, 2012 — On Super Tuesday, the Shorenstein Center welcomed Melinda Henneberger, political reporter and blogger for The Washington Post, to discuss the presidential primary race.
“The GOP primary couldn’t have gone better for the Democrats,” Henneberger began. The surprising thing about the race, she said, is that what began as a campaign focused on jobs “has ended up being about birth control.” A series of controversies including the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to defund Planned Parenthood, whether health care provided by religious institutions must cover contraceptives, and Rush Limbaugh’s statements about a college student, have translated into an issue “not about religious freedom but about birth control,” she observed, and this shift in discourse has been favorable for Democrats.
Limbaugh’s comments, Henneberger said, was the “icing on the cake” for Democrats: In the aftermath, women voters have been “energized,” and there has been a “dramatic increase” in Obama’s ratings among women. This incident will be a “big deal in the election,” Henneberger predicted, because of the tepid reaction of the GOP primary candidates who “refused to take [Limbaugh] on.”
Another change brought about in this campaign has been the “vast, unlimited amount of cash as result of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision,” Henneberger continued. It is “discouraging to think about how to get back to civil discourse…and combat the over-the-top polarization when the system of fundraising requires a cataclysmic view of things.”
“Outrage is oxygen” in today’s political climate, said Henneberger. The “constant news cycle” and “shout culture” encourage “more extreme views” and make it harder to “come more to the center and listen to each other.” While it seems clear that “the race will be over today,” and Romney will eventually capture the nomination, Henneberger noted, “in a country so divided, it doesn’t take a lot to swing an election.”
By Janell Sims, Shorenstein Center.
Photos by Heather McKinnon, Shorenstein Center.