Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The faux relevance of the consumer pop quiz

Today I rise in defense of Rudy Giuliani. While campaigning yesterday in Alabama, he had to endure one of the stupidest rituals of contemporary political journalism: the consumer pop quiz.

A local reporter asked him to name the price of a gallon of milk, and he got it badly wrong. He said it was “probably $1.50,” whereas, in reality, the average nationwide price (according to the federal Agriculture Department) is about $3.20, the Alabama price is around $3.40, and the price on the upper West Side in Giuliani’s city runs to about $4.20. Giuliani was also quizzed on the price of a bread loaf, and he guessed $1.30, which was about 70 cents lower than the current going rate in Alabama, although the Giuliani campaign late yesterday insisted that his guess was basically correct, if one consults the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And when pop-quizzed about the price of a gallon of gas, Giuliani said $2.89, which wasn’t a bad guess; that’s slightly higher than the current national average, although less than motorists pay in California.

I first saw this pop quiz in action 11 years ago, at eight in the morning during a snowstorm in New Hampshire (yeah, it’s a glamorous job). We stood in a town square, listening to a campaign pitch by Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander. Suddenly, a local reporter asked him whether he could correctly recite the price of milk and a dozen eggs.

Alexander blanked. He quickly turned to an aide for help. The aide was no help. Then he told the aide, “I need to know the price of a gallon of milk and a dozen eggs. I need to know right now.” Alexander’s rivals in the Bob Dole campaign were delighted; later that day, the Dole team put out a press release saying that the next time Alexander went stumping, “he might want to stop in a supermarket.” Alexander himself lamented, “I got stumped this morning on the price of eggs. I haven’t bought eggs in 12 years.”

Here’s my pop quiz: Who cares?

The price test is just a lazy journalistic gimmick which is designed to imply that a political candidate is out of touch with the lives of the masses. (Some political scientists refer to pop quizzes as “degradation ceremonies.”) Giuliani flunks the milk question, ergo he is an elitist. Ditto Lamar Alexander. Ditto Tom Strickland, a Democratic Senate candidate in Colorado, who in a 2002 debate was asked to name the price of a gallon of unleaded gas, and got it wrong. Ditto John Edwards, who blanked on the price of a six-pack of beer in July 2004 (“I haven’t bought a six-pack of beer in years, so I don’t know”). His questioner, by the way, was Don Imus.

If I was asked to explain why any of this should matter, I’d flunk. Presidential candidates, and those few who actually make it to White House, are not like you and me. They tend to have people around them who buy the goods and pump the gas. They tend to focus on things like the Consumer Price Index, not the price at the local grocery. I even read somewhere recently that when Dwight Eisenhower was ready to leave the White House, aides had to school him on the fine art of dialing a telephone and making his own call.

Similarly, Franklin D. Roosevelt was a member of the landed gentry; he lived well from cradle to grave, and I’d bet rarely paid for milk over the counter – yet today he is lionized as the president who lifted the average American out of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy grew up rich, and in fact he never paid for anything, much less milk or eggs, because (as his biographers report) he never even bothered to carry money. Yet he and his brother Bobby were revered by poor people of color. And consider Ronald Reagan who lived well in Hollywood long before he acquired the rich benefactors who greased his political career; are we supposed to believe that he clipped coupons for the best price on a gallon of skim – and could name that price when prompted? Yet he sold America on his set of conservative principles, effectively communicating his big picture.

Even the famed ’92 incident involving the senior President Bush and a supermarket scanner has been overblown. At a grocers convention, he was photographed looking amazed at the price scanner, and the New York Times ran it on page one, as evidence that Bush was out of touch with the masses. Democratic vice presidential candidate Al Gore said, “Here is a man who sees a 20-year-old technology at the supermarket checkout line, and looks like an ape discovering fire.” It turned out – far too late for the news cycle, and the verdict of history – that Bush was actually being shown a new version of the technology, one that could read torn labels on supermarket items.

I’d also bet that a fair number of Washington political journalists, who typically earn six figures annually, would flunk similar tests. I know I would – not because somebody else buys my goods (nobody does), but because my mind is elsewhere at the checkout line. The eggs and milk get scanned and rung up, and I never bother to check the itemized receipt. I can’t imagine that candidates, even those without gofers, would be any different.

Nevertheless, since this little ritual is here to stay, the wise candidate is the one who can ace the test, bond with the average Joe, and thus ensure that his or her populist creds are in order – even if, in reality, the wise one doesn’t know the difference between Whole Foods and 7-11. Indeed, Lamar Alexander advises all aspirants to cram accordingly; as he wrote in 1998, while listing 30 tips for presidential candidates, “Know the price of milk, bread and eggs. I couldn't remember them one day during the 1996 New Hampshire primary, and the media had a good time at my expense.”


Late Sunday night, I explained why the Republicans were not exulting about the polls which appear to show that the GOP is well poised to win the next presidential race. Here is further evidence of Republican gloom (thanks to the George W. Bush albatross), published today.