During the great depression, greedy promoters staged sadistic endurance contests: cross-country footraces, flagpole sitting, weeks-long walkathons. The worst of these were the dance marathons, in which contestants suffered privation, humiliation and sometimes permanent damage in the faint hope of winning a paltry prize. An enlightened nation finally turned against these appalling spectacles.
But now with the return of economic hard times, something disturbingly similar has cropped up in states around the country. They call it the Republican presidential campaign.
After more than 20 televised debates and two months of voting, the four remaining candidates are staggering glassy-eyed toward Super Tuesday, March 6. Voters in 10 states, from Virginia to Alaska, will cast ballots, and even then--at the risk of spoiling the suspense--the ordeal is bound to drag on. Given the proud tenacity of the various dark-horse candidates, the bottomless wallets of their super-PAC benefactors, and the GOP's arcane rules for awarding delegates this year, the music may drone maniacally until June or even later. Meanwhile, the contestants look more worn with each passing day.
"We didn't win by a lot, but we won by enough--that's all that counts," declared the shuffling front runner Mitt Romney in his victory speech in Michigan, where he survived a mutiny by social conservatives and the mischief of liberals casting crossover votes for Rick Santorum. It was the verbal equivalent of a sigh of relief after he eked out a 3-point win in his native state, where a loss could have been fatal. Who loses in a state where the governor's office is in a building named after your dad?
But the race has so far been immune to momentum; survival today only guarantees more punishment tomorrow. While Romney's delegate count slowly inches up, his favorability ratings drift dangerously downward. According to exit polls in Michigan, Romney lost to Santorum among the 40% of voters under 50, the half of voters with no college degree and the one-third of voters who call themselves very conservative. Romney remains very lucky that no candidate has managed to pull the anti-Romney vote together. Headed to Super Tuesday, he lags far behind Santorum in Ohio and Tennessee polls, trails former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in Georgia and might well be running behind Representative Ron Paul in the Alaska polls, if there were any.
A scene from They Shoot Horses, Don't They?--the classic dance-marathon movie--seems pertinent. The exhausted contestants stumble near the point of collapse as the M.C. lashes them to keep moving: "Here they are again, folks! These wonderful, wonderful kids! Still struggling! Still hoping! As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues! The marathon goes on and on and on! How long can they last?"
When Resilience Is All