By Katelyn Harding
12/4/07 — During a speech in Manchester, N.H. this October,
Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich declared, “I poll,
therefore I am.”
The Ohio Congressman was jokingly referring to the fact that he
finally “existed” as a presidential candidate by only registering at 2
percent in polls for the Democratic race.
Yet Kucinich has run a serioius campaign for president, one dominated
by his opposition to the Iraq War, an issue consistently identified at
or near the top by Democratic voters in this year’s primary.
So why does Dennis Kucinich barely register in polls that take the
pulse of the campaign? The answers vary: Some analysts blame it on
his limited political stature as one of hundreds of members of the
House of Representatives, others on the sometimes quirky nature of the
candidate himself (he says he once saw a UFO). But still others point
to the political press, which, they say, can hold in its pen
considerable power to anoint or bury candidates for the highest
office.
One thing is certain. Throughout the campaign, Kucinich has in some
ways stood alone on the issue of the Iraq War. He is the only
candidate running for president who voted against the war’s
authorization in 2002, and the only one to vote consistently against
further war funding.
According to a Nov. 4 Washington Post article, “Nearly half of all
adults, 45 percent, cited Iraq as the most or second-most important
issue in their choice for president.” And most of those want the war
to end.
Yet their sentiments have not translated into support for Kucinich,
who also ran in 2004.
Gabriel Lenz, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political
science professor, said one reason could be that House members rarely,
if ever, gain strong support, mainly because they’ve never been
elected to statewide offices such as governor or senator.
Joseph White, professor and director of the Center for Policy Studies
at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, agrees with Lenz’s theory.
“Not a whole lot of House members are taken seriously, and when they
are in rare occasions, they are major leaders in the House,” White
said. “There is no particular reason for him [Kucinich] to be a
leading candidate so he’s not.”
Only three current or former members of the House — Henry Clay in
1824, James A. Garfield in 1880 and John Anderson in 1980 — ran for
president in the general election. And Garfield, the only one to be
elected, had served 18 years in the House before being nominated as a
dark horse candidate on the 36th ballot of the Republican Convention.
Anderson ran as an independent third-party candidate, and Clay’s
candidacy predated the rise of the modern two-party system.
But if Lenz and White point to Kucinich’s lack of (political) stature
as the reason his campaign has lagged, author Paul Waldman suggests
another possible culprit: the press.
“The press has decided that the race is about Barack [Obama] and
Hillary [Clinton] and anyone else is not part of that story,” Waldman
said. “They [the media] are essentially making decisions for the
American public.”
Waldman is co-author of a book, The Press Effect, which
criticizes the press for its role in framing presidential politics,
sometimes unfairly, in the name of merely covering it. He pointed out,
for example, that the Nov. 15 Democratic debate was an opportunity for
the media to frame Kucinich in a negative way.
Moderator Tim Russert asked Kucinich if he had ever seen a UFO, a
question “designed to make him look silly.” It was, according to
Waldman, a vehicle for Russert to express his opinion that Kucinich
didn’t “deserve to be there.”
“What reporters try to do is form impressions first, then create the
moments that will enable them to take those impressions and put them
before the public,” Waldman said of Russert’s question. “Russert can’t
just say ‘You’re a weirdo,’ so what does he do? He finds some way to
get that point across without expressing his opinion.”
Professor Lenz said that the only reason Kucinich was asked the
question is because he claimed he had seen one previous to the debate.
If frontrunner Clinton had made the same claim, he said, she would
have been asked the question as well. But Lenz said that Kucinich
doesn’t have enough credibility to shake the “weird” image that’s
displayed by the media.
“It’s a tough thing for him, because he’s definitely portrayed as
being quirky and unusual [in the media],” Lenz said. “And people focus
quite a bit on [trivial things such as] his wife’s looks. Does he have
a serious chance for running for president? A lot of people run to
influence the policies of the eventual nominee. That may be what he’s
doing.”
New England Cable News reporter Alison King, who has covered politics
for 13 years, suggested that Elizabeth Kucinich’s looks make news —
in one joint interview with her husband, she was asked, and declined,
to show her tongue ring — because the short and slight Kucinich
doesn’t fit the image of the candidate who is “the most presidential
looking.”
But King insists Kucinich is “not a joke” and is a “credible candidate.”
“The UFO [question] doesn’t help his cause,” she conceded. “The media
is pigeon-holing [him] as a left-wing wacko, which doesn’t describe
him at all. He’s really thoughtful, and there are great things about
him, but [the media] tend to focus on the slightly weirder things
about him.”
Another reason the Democratic Congressman is at the bottom of the
polls could be the fact that he’s considered far to the left of
center, King said.
“He’s probably the most left-leaning candidate… and his [Kucinich’s]
ideas are weird. He’s said he would get rid of the Department of
Defense and instill a Department of Peace,” King said. “Well that
sounds really cute, but [the idea is] ridiculous. People don’t take
him seriously when he says stuff like that.”
White said Kucinich’s proposed Department of Peace is one example of
fodder for the media’s representation of Kucinich as “a bit of a
weirdo” and how he comes across as “a nut” on enough grounds for
voters to shy away from him.
Whether this characterization is fair or not, Waldman said, it will be
hard to overcome because the press already has cast Kucinich as “an
object of humor,” a characterization that has stuck..
“Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are respected by the political press, and
Dennis isn’t,” Waldman said, mentioning two senator who like Kucinich
trail far behind in the polls. “But they don’t get coverage [in the
news] either. It’s more complicated when you get to quality. They [the
media] don’t consider him [Kucinich] a serious candidate. His
personality isn’t something that people will accept as a legitimate
contender.”