Since early January, 16 of my journalism students at the University of Washington have been covering the 2008 presidential campaign. We've gone new media, adopting a mode of blogging that combines traditional reporting, insights from other news outlets, and first-person commentary. It's somewhere between the voice of The Seattle Times' David Postman and the rancor of the blogosphere: part journalism, part pundit, part political newbies. Altogether, we have presented the campaign through youthful eyes.
Our forum has been Seattlepoliticore.org, and our material has gotten play at The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times, the Idaho Statesman, and a number of blogs for which my students write. We've covered Democratic Party caucuses in Idaho — the state's Republicans don't use this method to select delegates — and the caucuses and primaries of both parties around King County, including Seattle proper and the Eastside suburbs. Later this week, we head to Texas for our grand finale: coverage of the March 4 primary and caucuses. (Yes, Texas has both, too, challenging Washington's delegate process for most-screwed-up status.) It just might be the last big contest for all of the campaigns.
It's been a powerful experience for us, both as students and citizens.
We spent two hours stuck at Snoqualmie Pass, working via cell phones and wireless network cards, and then sped to Coeur d' Alene to see Northern Idahoans brave ice and freezing weather to give Barack Obama 80 percent of their caucus votes. We were barred from entering the Republican caucus in the 37th Legislative District in Seattle's Rainier Beach neighborhood — until the Seattle City Library and a sheriff's deputy intervened — and scored an on-camera interview with Gov. Chris Gregoire at a Democratic caucus in the Magnolia neighborhood. We saw Mercer Island and Sammamish Dems and Repubs conduct themselves with calm and citizen pride.
And along the way we learned some important things about the Obama and Clinton campaigns. We didn't set out to learn these pieces — but the campaigns taught us loud and clear.
In our coverage of the Idaho and Washington state caucuses, there emerged a lean toward Obama in my students' writing about the Democratic contest. This pro-Obama frame occurred for three reasons:
- Because some of the students have serious political crushes on him, even though they've tried to keep all this in check. He inspires them — and I haven't sought to squelch this, being a prof interested in helping students become citizens.
- Because the class is set up as a blogging class, in which politics meets alternative journalism. So their opinion shines through in places, and this was fine as long as they didn't cross over into fan mail.
- Because the Obama campaign treated us like pros — they called us back within minutes, set up interviews, got us press passes, went out of their way to make the campaign accessible. The Clinton campaign, in contrast, didn't return a single phone call, didn't provide press access, and did virtually nothing to encourage our coverage. It was either arrogance or disorganization on the Clinton campaign's part.
Here's one example: Jeff Giertz, the Obama team's on-the-ground point person for the press, answered my phone call when I called to ask about press access to the Obama event on Feb. 8 at KeyArena. He said he'd check on getting passes for my students. I figured I'd wait and see if he actually did. Within five minutes he e-mailed me back, saying it was a go, and he could provide four press passes for my students. I was impressed. Clearly he had a vested interest in getting college students into the press area — and he did what a campaign person should do: He treated us well and welcomed us to his candidate. He told me to call him anytime.
So I did.
Lots of my students wanted to cover this event, so I called Giertz back six hours later and asked for four more passes. He said yes. The next day, when some of my students arrived at KeyArena after the local police had locked the doors and weren't allowing anyone in — including reporters from local TV and radio outlets — the students dialed up Giertz and he personally came and vouched for them. He followed up the day after the event with an e-mail checking in on how I thought things went.
I don't for a moment think he did all this just to be a nice guy. He had motives, of course. Still, it's telling that I made the exact same pitch about "access to college students" to the Clinton campaign, and they didn't do anything to facilitate our coverage.
Here's a comment from one of my students, Jennifer Ware:
I noticed a difference between Obama and Clinton when I first started calling their campaigns in the week before the caucuses. At that point Washington state seemed like an afterthought for the Clinton campaign. Hillary wasn't anywhere to be found in Seattle, but Obama had a campaign office in the heart of Pioneer Square. He had for months, and everyone there seemed more than happy to help.
When I called the Clinton campaign to ask for a contact at their Washington state campaign office, one staffer tried to tell me that Washington was where their campaign headquarters is. "Yes" she said, "Washington, it's right next to Virginia."
Obama had the foresight to know he might need Washington state, whereas Clinton apparently never thought she'd have to reach this far. And a tiny part of me felt excluded.
Every single person I've dealt with from the Obama campaign was upbeat, positive and helpful. Even when the press couldn't initially get into the venue on Friday for Obama's speech, and a reporter from The Seattle Times was yelling at one of the volunteers, she handled it with poise and kindness. It was almost so good it looked staged, but she was real. She said, 'I'm just a volunteer from Shoreline, I've never done this before, please bear with me.' Even as Obama volunteers managed mobs of people at KeyArena, they did it with purpose, not burden.
And I think it's because they feel part of a movement.
John McCain spoke in Seattle (the same day) to about 500 people at the Westin Hotel's conference room. Clinton spoke to a gathering of 5,000 at a waterfront pier (on February 7). Obama spoke at Key Arena, home to the Seattle Supersonics; it seats 18,000 and it wasn't nearly big enough. People were sitting on the stairs, in the aisles. Seasoned reporters were smiling and nodding softly as he spoke. Some people had tears in their eyes when he came on stage. There's all kinds of spin out there, but you simply can't spin those numbers. Or the stark contrast to the others in the race.
When my students had trouble reaching the Clinton campaign in the run-up to the caucuses, I made a call to her national office. I figured that maybe they'd respond to a UW professor better than a student — which would be an error on their part, but still one that we might use to help our coverage. I told them we were having trouble reaching people — anyone — on the ground in Washington state with the Clinton campaign, and I implored them to make sure my request on behalf of my students for press access to Clinton's event in Seattle received a response. They assured me I'd hear from them. I emphasized my point a second time. They kindly repeated that I would certainly hear from people on the ground here.
I'm still waiting for that call.
The Obama and Clinton campaigns weren't the only ones to come to town. On the Republican Party side, Ron Paul held a rally on the UW campus. Janet Huckabee held a rally at Northwest University, and her campaign team reached out to my students covering her husband's candidacy — returning calls and making sure they had press access. McCain's campaign aides went out of their way to let my students know about his press event at the Westin, and to get them in. For those scoring at home, five presidential campaigns came to town — and four reached out to my students, treating them like what they are: journalists and citizens.
It seems that the take-home point here is this: The Clinton campaign has made the case that Obama is nothing but rhetoric; he's supposedly all words, while she's all action. Our experiences showed us that their campaigns — at least in Seattle — were exactly the opposite. In their treatment of my students, Clinton's campaign was all talk, while Obama's was all walk.
It suggests to me that the Obama campaign's appeal to younger people is not just because of Obama himself. It's a campaign that treats young people like full adults. And across Washington state, Obama crushed Clinton, defeating her in every county in the state. It's been a pattern repeated in every contest since.