SCALING MOUNT AMBIVALENCE

Posted in Election 2012 on September 5th, 2012 by Ed

It is strange to think back to this time in 2008. I was at a political science convention in Boston just prior to the Republican convention, and it's difficult to describe how much the conference of 7,000 political scientists (normally a shockingly apolitical crowd – something about mixing business and pleasure) was buzzing about the election. It makes sense, as Labor Day and the conventions are the official kickoff of the general election phase of the campaigns. As reflected in the high (for Americans) rate of voter turnout, the level of interest in the 2008 election was both measurably and qualitatively high. People were interested in it. It was exciting.

It is an understatement to point out that the same dynamic is not present in 2012. This presidential election is shaping up as a re-do of 1996: two candidates no one really likes fighting not only to win your vote but also to make you feel like voting at all. The bloom is entirely off the Obama rose – too many broken promises, too much pandering to the right and "moderates", not enough firm resolve until re-election season grew near – and we could spend hours cataloging Romney's problems winning the interest and enthusiasm of his fellow Republicans. Turnout will almost certainly fall, and all of the signs of a pair of candidates desperate to get you to give one or more shits about this election are plain to see.

By now you have probably seen the smug news item about how "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" beat the GOP convention in TV ratings last Wednesday. That might be amusing, but the much more important statistic is that overall viewership of the convention was down a staggering 30-40% from 2008 – and remember that Republican enthusiasm for the nominee was not exactly in the stratosphere back then either. I'd caution everyone not to spend too much time guffawing at the poor ratings received by Romney and Friends; this week's convention may not do much better. How many people could honestly expect to hear anything new from Obama at this point? What audience the conventions do attract at this point is most likely drawn from the Preaching to the Converted pile.

It is possible that I am projecting my own considerable ambivalence and malaise toward this election, although I'm fairly certain that it has some basis in reality. An incumbent with a 45% approval rating is being challenged by a Massachusetts Mormon with no definable position on any major issues. This feels like an election to be tolerated, endured, or trudged through. Even the most zealous partisans appear to be drawing their enthusiasm mostly from hatred of The Other Guy rather than genuine fondness for their own candidate.

There are many problems with the idea that Obama won in 2008 because of a surge of new young and/or minority voters, principally the fact that Obama won every single demographic except white males over 40. While participation among young, black, or Latino voters did rise, he succeeded because he convinced a lot of the people who always vote to vote for him. You don't win Indiana as a Democrat simply by turning out a few more college kids. This is relevant because lower turnout won't necessarily imply bad news for Obama. Instead his problem is that the white lower-class voters that he managed to win in 2008 appear to have gone Full Teabag since then and they're unlikely to support him again.

Attempts at analysis aside, the most outstanding feature of this election so far seems to be how little attention we are paying to it as an electorate. My personal feelings are much closer to "Let's just get this goddamn thing over with" than any genuine curiosity or excitement about the outcome. The faithful of the respective parties are already decided. Undecideds are few and uncertain to the extent that they dislike both candidates. Sprinkle this whole mess with millions (billions?) pf SuperPac dollars that will be blown on annoying, sub-moronic advertising and you've got yourself a fine recipe for a campaign we will all be doing our damnedest to ignore while the candidates and media go through the motions.

(PS: Surely I have matured beyond recognition; I changed the original title, "Scaling Mount Who-Gives-a-Shit")