Of potholes and presidents

Much has been written lately about the “nationalization” of the 2010 midterm elections. While it is tempting to categorize this year as another so-called “wave” election, history shows that such waves tend to flow quickly back off the beach.

Sure, in 1994 Newt Gingrich “nationalized” the congressional elections with his “Contract With America.” In 2006 the Democrats made the election all about the George W. Bush administration. 2008 — well, a presidential election is always pretty much nationalized, and, again, it was about Bush.

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Had such waves permanently altered the political contours of the country, we wouldn’t be talking about “nationalizing” the midterms this time around. 

For example, a poll in yesterday’s paper conducted for The Hill by Mark Penn, who plotted strategy for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential campaign, suggests that President Obama is the issue this year. Penn’s poll of a dozen districts with freshman Democrats in tough races shows 55 percent of voters disapprove of the job the president is doing. Perhaps more important, 76 percent are unhappy with Congress. Yet in only two of those districts are GOP candidates up by double digits. The others show Republican challengers leading by margins from 1 to 9 percent, and in one district the candidates are tied.

If voters are so unhappy with the president and members of Congress, why are these races so close? The pollsters and pundits point out that most of the Democrats holding those seats won in 2008 because Barack Obama dragged them over the finish line. Doesn’t it make sense, then, that those freshmen should be down by 15 to 20 points? Well, if this election were all about national trends, they would be. One has to assume that the wisdom of Tip O’Neil still stands: Even midterm elections are as much about potholes as presidents.

Americans, especially those who don’t identify strongly with one party or the other, are very frustrated with the state of their nation. A fascinating piece of research reported in The New York Times this week shows that the concern is not just over the deficit or healthcare, but that it goes much deeper. Three marketing consultants — one has dabbled in politics — are conducting a series of focus groups that reveal much more than the kind of political research we are used to seeing.

The focus groups are among self-described “independents” — voters who don’t see themselves as Republicans or Democrats no matter how they might be registered. The dominant theme coming out of this research “seemed to be the larger breakdown of civil society — the disappearance of common courtesy, the relentless stream of data from digital devices, the proliferation of lawsuits and the insidious influence of media on their children … These voters did not hate politicians. They simply saw both parties, along with the media and big business, as symptoms of the larger societal ailment.”

I would argue that these voters don’t think anyone is listening to them, and that is what drives voter frustration with government. It is not just Obamacare or what seems to be an endless recession. It is that too many of us see our nation as adrift. That’s why they threw the Democrats out in 1994 — not because of Newt’s “Contract.” Independents gave Barack Obama the White House in 2008 because they wanted to send a message. In 2010 their frustration level has increased. People got tired of throwing their slippers at the TV screen and went outside to grab a pitchfork and create the Tea Party. Which brings us back to potholes.

Just riding a wave of frustration is not leadership. The great Republican revolution of ’94 didn’t last. Karl Rove’s permanent Republican majority was short-lived. Obama’s “Yes we can” is a fading memory. No party will fashion a true governing majority until it starts listening to local concerns instead of national pundits — until it gives up the idea of “nationalizing” elections and focuses on “localizing” public policy.

When we see a national mood as sour as we do today, yet see challengers running only even or with very slight leads, it suggests many voters are making personal — not national — decisions. As the old saw goes, voters don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Personalizing and localizing issues shows that you care. Healthcare reform is abstract; what you pay for premiums is not. Financial reform doesn’t much matter if your son can’t find a job. Candidates who pay attention to fixing the metaphorical pothole will survive “wave” elections.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com