US expats search for a Democrat champion
As the primaries for the 2004 Presidential election get into full swing, what do American expats in the Netherlands know of the Democrat hopefuls vying for the opportunity to oppose President George W. Bush?
Carrie Ballard, 50, grew up in various places - Egypt, Lebanon and Nigeria - when her father worked for an international oil company, and she has spent much of her adult life abroad also, including six years in the Netherlands.
Voting was never a big priority for Ballard, and like most expats, she was only concerned with presidential elections. However, she didn’t get around to casting a ballot in 2000. Like many, she thought it would not have made a difference.
The lesson learned is that every vote does count and Ballard, who doesn’t want to look at George W. Bush for another term, has decided to get involved early this time. Not only is she voting for president, she decided to cast a ballot for one of the nine people vying to be the Democratic presidential candidate.
Ballard prepared by registering with the Democratic National Party for the first time ever. She now spends about two hours a day combing through political news on-line, reading magazines such as the Economist, and reviewing transcripts from televised debates in the United States, posted on the internet.
The only thing Ballard hadn't decided was which of the candidates she was going to choose.
Scrolling through the list, she noticed a woman's name: Carol Moseley Braun. Ballard liked the idea of a woman in the White House, but figured that Moseley Braun, former senator from Illinois and Ambassador to New Zealand, was just another status quo female politician, not unlike Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Dole. That was until Ballard learned that Moseley Braun was an African American.
"It was a huge shock," she said. "The fact that she was African America made a huge impact."
Carol Moseley Braun dropped out
Even among educated, politically active voters, the lack of television coverage and absence of political ads makes it difficult to know what all of the candidates look and sound like. This not only steers voters away from television towards more traditional news sources, but forces them to choose a candidate based more on issues and less on appearance.
Iva Deutchman, a political science professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in Geneva, New York, believes that not having access to political ads and television stories is actually a good thing. Voters who rely on newspapers and the internet, where the quality of information is better, are able to make more informed choices.
"Those voters who are relying solely or 90 percent on television to pick their man are not going to get the same information as those who use better sources, like the New York Times," she said.
Mikael Bard, 41, has lived on and off outside of the United States for the past five years and has consistently tried to vote. While he can read some Dutch, he said media in the Netherlands simply doesn’t provide coverage of any American candidates.
Occasionally, Bard will spring for a EUR 8 copy of the New York Times, but he, too, has begun to rely on the internet and sites such as Yahoo News for political information.
Offhand, Bard rattles off former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, General Wesley Clark, Senator John Kerry and Congressman Dick Gephardt as the candidates he is most familiar with from his reading.
He isn't certain though if he could recognise any by face, let alone the other remaining candidates, who have received even less attention in the mainstream press.
"I'm assuming they're all white, male, of a certain age and passing as heterosexual," Bard said. "If a non-white, a woman or a gay was running, I'd know. The media would go crazy."
John Kerry: the main man?
The rest of the candidates, Gephardt, Clark, Senator John Edwards, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Senator Joseph Lieberman are indeed white males; Lieberman is also Jewish.
While some of these facts can be garnered more easily from television, having access to live media doesn’t necessarily contribute to a more informed voting decision.
"The quality of information on television gives new meaning to the term superficial," said Deutchman.
Keeping voters informed is a priority for Robert Checkoway, 34, chair for the Netherlands chapter of Democrats Abroad, of which Ballard and Bard are both members.
Checkoway, who has lived outside of the United States for 12 years, understands the difficulties of making a voting decision without proper TV coverage. With estimates of anywhere from 4.1 to 7.1 million Americans living overseas, of which less than 1 percent are members of the military, the potential impact of expats is huge.
"The Americans overseas who vote are the ones who stay connected," he said.
While the organisation will not endorse or assist members with choosing a candidate at this stage, it does help voters update their registrations in time for their home state primaries.
Democrats Abroad has organised a series of conference calls and may even host a few video nights, to show tapes of primary debates from the United States.
The Netherlands chapter has already participated in three conference calls this past year, two with Dean and one with Kerry. It is one way to hear a candidate’s voice, ask a direct question and see how a candidate responds unscripted. The Dean calls went so well that he has agreed to an unprecedented third call with overseas voters.
It is an important move, according to Checkoway, who explained that campaigning in the United States is still about getting on a bus, driving around the country and shaking hands.
"It is as much for them as us," he said. "We can't see and hear them, but they can't see and hear us."
Ballard has not participated in any of the conference calls and while she has heard three of the candidates-Dean, Kerry and Clark-speak on TV, it was "never for more than 60 seconds." She was forced to read whole transcripts in order to find anything about Moseley Braun, when she was still in the race.
"There is almost nothing on her. It is as though she wasn't there," said Ballard.
Ballard hasn’t seen any political ads either. That is not necessarily a disadvantage to voters or politicians, according to Deutchman.
"Ads are more about image and more about exposure and less about content," she said. "Not seeing political ads is wonderful! They do not have much positive effect and their great negative effect is they depress voting turnout."
Deutchman is not certain that voters would choose the same candidate twice, if they had the opportunity to vote once with exposure to television and political ads, and once relying on just newspapers and the Internet.
The lack of information about Moseley Braun didn't discourage Ballard from sending a campaign contribution, something she has never done before, though Ballard will have to choose another candidate now that Moseley Braun and Gephardt have dropped out of the race.
Ultimately, it is hard to measure how much television influences voting, as there are no mock elections. And outwardly negative qualities may not matter after all, according to Deutchman, as they didn't hurt President Bush's chances four years ago.
"He couldn't speak English in 2000 and that didn't keep him from getting appointed president."
22 January 2004