A campaign for the cynics
The candidates know elections are decided by the least informed, the least involved and the least interested in politics
By Barry Gordon 05/10/2012
So it’s decided. Obama v. Romney in 2012.
Most Democrats I’ve spoken to now believe that an Obama victory is virtually assured. Perhaps less assured than it might have been if Gingrich or Santorum had emerged as the opponent, but assured nonetheless. Many believe that Romney is fated to be the John Kerry of this campaign season — a pathological flip-flopper who seems to have no true north on his political compass. A man who seems to have the singular goal of becoming president of the United States, rather than a burning desire to transform the nation and lead it to greatness. A candidate who, while complaining that President Obama will distract, distort and lead a divisive negative campaign, has been much clearer about what he’s against than what he is for. And generally, what he is against is anything Obama is for.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing that has emerged from Romney’s campaign was its view of the political process itself. It was summarized by Romney’s chief campaign adviser, Eric Ferhnstrom, often described as Romney’s David Axelrod. When asked how Romney would be able to “pivot” to the center in the general election in order to attract swing voters, he said, “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.”
I found that remark to be profoundly cynical. But even more cynical has been the acceptance of its truth by virtually every pundit, commentator and campaign strategist who has commented on it. We Americans seem to take for granted the idea that a candidate must be (or even should be) two-faced, presenting one image to the more ideologically pure voters in his “base” during the primary season, while looking far more sensible and moderate in the General Election to attract independents and swing voters. And we don’t even seem concerned about what that says about American politics.
Amazingly, the pundits are not terribly wrong. Unlike political junkies like myself and perhaps most of my readers, the group that decides elections — the so-called “independents” (what a great American-sounding word) — are actually the least informed, the least involved and, if they vote at all, the least interested. I’m not saying there are no thoughtful, well-informed genuine independents, but they are few and far between. Almost every political scientist who has studied the subject has found that most independents pay very little attention to the race at this point and are certainly not examining every article or ad for discrepancies and contradictions. No one can really be sure if they will vote or why they will choose a particular candidate. They tend to be the people who make late decisions based on the latest information they receive. So for this group, an Etch-a-Sketch approach works just fine.
These are also the voters who are most likely to respond to negative campaigning, even though they loudly complain about the sleaziness of our campaigns. As a group, they are less likely to immerse themselves in the news and more likely to accept the opinion of their neighbors, their pastor or their favorite radio talk show host. They are also more likely to agree with simplistic claims, such as “If the economy’s weak, it must be the president’s fault,” or “Only a businessman knows how the real economy works.” We’ll hear those two statements a lot in the coming months.
The Romney campaign has also proven another fact that will validate the cynics — you can buy an election. With the advent of super PACs and the massive increase of spending that followed the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, it has become even more evident that a candidate can crush his opponents with an onslaught of attack ads funded by the campaign and several of his wealthy friends. Gingrich and Santorum may have had the ideas and values of true conservatives, but Romney had the bucks. It was no contest.
The Supreme Court has insisted on equating money with speech and, as long as they do so, they will continue to make decisions that can have an extremely deleterious effect on our politics. I do not equate money with speech. I equate it with the amplification of speech. When I go to a town hall to meet my congressman, I have a right, along with everyone else there, to express myself. But I certainly wouldn’t be allowed to bring in a bullhorn and drown out everyone else in the room. The Supreme Court has always supported what it calls time, place and manner restrictions on free speech. To me, the regulation of the use of money for campaign ads is just such a restriction.
Our goal as citizens should be to increase the number of voices heard. Oliver Wendell Holmes used to praise the concept of a “marketplace of ideas,” where all points of view were equally considered. He believed that in such a marketplace, truth would ultimately prevail. But in any marketplace, monopolies are unhealthy. And when one has a 10-to-1 money advantage, as Romney had over his opponents in some primary states, one can drown out his rivals just as effectively as I could with a bullhorn in a town hall.
Of course, in the General Election, the discrepancy between campaign war chests will be far less severe. But, nevertheless, the very idea that we measure a candidate’s power in terms of the money he or she is able to raise distorts the very nature of campaigns in a supposed democracy like ours.
Whether it has to do with the honesty and integrity of our candidates or the fairness and openness of our campaign process, we have a right to expect more from our politics. But if we don’t demand it, then the fault lies with us and the cynics will be proved right once again.
Barry Gordon is the co-host of “City Beat” and is an adjunct professor at Cal State LA.