Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Untold story

The midterm elections are over, and commentators throughout the country are busy trying to read the tea leaves in an attempt to figure out, solemnly, "what it all means." Usually they and the candidates themselves try to put some sort of great overriding theme into the results, when in reality it's more of a case of many individual decisions that may or may not have anything to do with each other when you try to connect the dots.

With all of this analysis, there's one overriding factor that doesn't get discussed here. But listen to people talk or pay attention to their posts on social media, and the message comes across loud and clear.

People are angry at the campaign process itself.

Few people were talking about who might win a political race. They were more likely to talk about how much mail they received on a given day from campaigns, or how many phone calls they received from candidates or their surrogates.

Political battles have become something of a virus, infecting people unexpectedly. In New York, we're somewhat immune from the major battles. The state usually goes Democratic in Presidential battles, and elections for Governor and Senator have been relatively one-sided too. I can't imagine what it's like to live in Ohio in an election year these days.

This year, we had an odd set of circumstances in my State Senate district. Usually, the Democrat wins handily since the registration edge is something like three-to-one. This was not a typical year. Two years ago, Mark Grisanti switched parties to run and win as a Republican. Since then he voted for same-sex marriage and gun control, angering some Republicans. He lost the primary to Kevin Stocker, and then opted to run on the Independence Party line. Meanwhile, Democrat Marc Panepinto was waiting in the general election. Panepinto was mostly known for being convicted of election fraud 11 years ago - not a good sign for someone seeking elective office. None of them, by the way, would ever be called "the best and the brightest" when it comes to serving the public - at least based on their public statements.

Throw in another conservative candidate who figured to draw some votes, and no one had the slightest idea who would win. So special interests came out of the woodwork to back Grisanti and Panepinto, and they threw money at the voters in the form of television ads and literature. And threw it, and threw it, and threw it. You couldn't watch the local news without seeing political ads, with the same candidate sometimes promoted more than once within the half-hour cycle. Heck, at the end of the news I was starting to miss ads like Fred Thompson's support of reverse mortgages.

The day before the election, I received 19 pieces of mail - mostly about this particular State Senate election. To be fair, Stocker's campaign was rather quiet in this sense, but that was probably more a case of a lack of supporting funds. Keep in mind that I'm not affiliated with a political party, although my wife is. We both were overwhelmed.

We all know that negative campaigning works, otherwise candidates and groups wouldn't be so quick to use it. Political parties and other groups have been happy to spread negative thoughts about opponents, using anecdotes and conclusions that sometimes are only within touching distance of the truth. The literature often comes without the name of the sponsoring group attached, meaning that the recipient has no idea who is doing the attacking. (At least on television, the group paying the bills has to be identified ... briefly.)

By the end of the campaign season, the voters are pretty tired. When the phone rings, many check Caller ID to see if the call is from a number they recognize. Otherwise, it goes unanswered. If they do answer, they hang up quickly. This isn't new. I remember one time some years ago, a co-worker came to work at 5 p.m one late October., and I asked him how he was. "Lousy - Hillary Clinton woke me up from my nap," he answered. But it's getting worse by  the year.

On Sunday, I even was frustrated enough to fight back once. I got an actual person calling me asking if he could count on my support of Panepinto. I told him that the election fraud conviction really bothered me, although I never said it was a disqualifying offense in terms of a vote. The guy on the phone said that was 11 years ago, and I said it still showed very poor judgment. With that, the guy just gave up - said thank you and hung up. No room for discussion there.

What happens by election day? People are sick of everyone. No candidate comes through the process without scars. Most of my friends vote all the time, so they take it all with a grunt and move on. Still, can you blame anyone for not voting? The numbers haven't been good in terms of turnout for off-year elections for a few decades - under 50 percent. According to some early statistics, turnout dropped in more than 40 states this time as compared to 2010. Remember, this is apples to apples, and not compared to 2012 when there was a Presidential race.

My guess is that by driving away those who aren't fully invested in the process, you tend to get a larger percentage of the "true believers" - which translates into the left and right wings. Which leads to less of a willingness to compromise, more gridlock in government, and more anger at the other side.

I would think that we need to take a look at all of this in a rational manner, starting with making it easier and more convenient to vote. I know that some think that reducing the size of the electorate can work in a particular party's favor in a particular race. But let's agree on something, shall we? The goal in a democratic society (note the small D) is to make the process more inclusive. What we're doing now is driving people away. 

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