The danger of voter resignation this year
If you tell a believable lie long enough, it becomes the truth to many people. Even telling a fantastic lie relentlessly, can get people to move or stand still, depending on the manipulated situation. In politics, these truisms work regularly.
Lately, the Republicans, nationally, have not offered any substantial employment programs, viable alternatives to healthcare, practical reform measures of Wall Street and the banking industry, and they apologized to the oil company BP, for President Barack Obama’s negotiation of a $20 billion Gulf Coast settlement fund. Yet, they sell themselves well as the party of action and moving forward; the party of real solutions to the problems they helped create. Some people are buying it.
The president’s approval ratings are down around 45 percent, and a large number of Democrats seemed resigned to defeat in November, in spite of an enviable record of accomplishment against sustained opposition and negativity.
Clearly in the United States of America, one does not always have to be right, or have the best idea, or the most talent to shine and to win. What one needs is great access to the public media—creative and memorable marketing count big.
If money is, indeed, the engine of politics, publicity is certainly the gasoline in the tank. In 2000, 2002 and 2004, Republicans had control of several secretaries of state in crossroads areas, plus they were beginning to embed journalists and writers in selective media outlets to carry their version of truth. Those, along with other factors, carried the day for them. Too many scandals, too much of a senseless war in Iraq, and the beginnings of the recession overwhelmed such advantages in 2006 and 2008, but the Republicans seem to be convinced that they can mass market misinformation long enough and widely enough to do the trick again in this current cycle—re-seize at least Congress, then have the momentum to get the White House back in 2012.
Maybe. At least, that’s the consistent drumbeat one hears from the pundits nowadays: The Repubs have the wind in their sails; they can’t lose; the Democrats are scrambling and desperate; nobody seems to like Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, etc., etc., etc. However, try as they might to convince everyone, or even most voters, that they are the crest of the wave of change needed—even if it’s only change backwards—they might want to resist drinking their own Kool-Aid, and sensible voters need to look beneath the hype.
True, one pattern in American politics since the 1940s has been that mid-term contests don’t turn out well for the party in power, when the president is the leader of the party and he is on the less than 50 percent popularity track. So, in 1994, the reference year most Republicans keep using, Bill Clinton’s poll numbers showed a 46 percent rating, about the same as President Obama right now, and the Democrats lost 53 seats in Congress. In general, when the president’s rating has been below 50 percent, the trend is a loss of at least 36 seats for his party. Ronald Reagan was at 42 percent in 1982 and the Repubs lost 28 seats, and in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson’s poll numbers showed 44 percent, the Democrats lost 47 seats. The exception to this rule was Jimmy Carter, who with a rating of 49 percent, did not see his party lose more than 11 seats.
But there are three major factors that must be added into this calculation in order to give a more accurate prediction about the upcoming midterms (where is that World Cup octopus when we need him?). Number one, this is not a zero sums game. Being upset, miffed or even downright angry at the current party in power does not automatically transfer into votes for the other major party. The same polls that show dissatisfaction with President Obama and the Democrats also show even more disdain for the Republicans. The voting can be a choice of the lesser of two evils—the Repubs have little chance of winning that one, given their voting record against job extensions, financial reform, and the like, unless the Democrats just don’t show up at the polls.
Secondly, the poll of the moment is not guaranteed to be the poll at the time of the elections, and the national polls will not determine most state contests. There are a lot of seats up for grabs as virtually all House members will be on the ballot, as well as more than-one-third of the U.S. Senate members. As a quick reminder, most politics are local, and these are really individual contests in places where, the quality of the candidate and the campaign will count much more than party affiliation. Once you also throw in incumbency, as dicey as that may be in some states, it begins to dawn that the ‘wind in their sails’ is merely bravado and wishful thinking. The third factor is youth and the Internet. Which candidates can go viral? Which elections can galvanize youth to show up and vote?
Interestingly, none of the current breathless analyses we are entertained by daily seem to mention these other intervening factors. We must pay attention to the details, and not just the hype. That’s why they play the game—the results only come in after the tussle, not the talking.
In California, we were deprived of our first modern African American governor of the state, when too many of us listened and believed the Mervin Field Poll that Mayor Bradley was 20-25 percentage points ahead of George Deukmejian even on the day of the election. Well, some thought, he’s already won, so why should I bother voting? A large percentage of the Black population did not vote against Mr. Bradley, as some media erroneously reported; they just did not vote at all. We drank the Kool-Aid.
Words to the politically wise.
David Horne, Ph.D., is executive director of the California African American Political Economic Institute (CAAPEI) located at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
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