I went and did early voting on Saturday. As I was waiting around for Question Cathy to finish, an old woman came in to vote. Her presence brought the total number of voters in the giant empty strip mall retail space to three, including me and QC. The woman was very obviously unclear about what she was doing. First she was informed that there were multiple ballots (Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, etc). Then she was informed that, as a registered Democrat, she was legally obligated in this state to take the Democratic ballot or the odd sock drawer "other" ballot.
"Why am I registered as a Democrat?" Well ma'am, you have been registered as a Democrat since 1972.
"Is Trump on the ballot?" No ma'am, Trump is running in the Republican primary.
"What am I voting for if Trump isn't on the ballot?" This is the primary election, ma'am. There is a list of candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination to run against Trump, if Trump is the winner of the Republican nomination (the volunteer poll judge was, after all, extremely By the Book)
"I thought they were all running against Trump." Ma'am they are all competing to be the Democrat who opposes the Republican nominee in the general election this November.
"I thought that's what I was voting in now." No ma'am, you cannot vote in the November election in February. This is the primary election. First there is the primary and then later in the year the general election. Your voting history shows that you have voted in the primary election many times before.
"I thought I was voting for president. I want to vote for president." Ma'am….
On it went like this until we left. For all I know she is still standing there, with three extraordinarily patient volunteer election judges explaining it.
Later in the week QC and I socialized with two people I like immensely, probably the best people we've met in the short time we have lived here. They are both extremely intelligent. As always when I socialize, eventually someone brings up the election. I try to keep politics to an absolute minimum in social settings. After maybe three minutes we managed to move on to something else. My impression, from the brief discussion, was that the three other people at the table broadly knew who most of the Democratic candidates for president are. Someone asked who won Iowa and New Hampshire, not because the media coverage or the Iowa Democratic Party caucus confused them, but because Iowa and New Hampshire are not really a thing to 99% of us.
Combined these were useful reminders, and reminders I will attempt to remember, that the subset of Americans paying really close attention to the day-to-day of politics is extremely small. You might not previously have considered yourself some kind of well-informed political elite by being able to explain, even in general terms, what M4A is and where some of the major candidates stand on health care, but congratulations; you are. And despite the enormous amount of time, money, and energy that will be spent on this election cycle, many people (even some people who will take the time to participate) have no real idea what is going on. I'm not picking on the old lady, who for all I know might have been in some kind of state of cognitive decline that left her confused on Saturday morning. All I am saying is that it would not be unusual at all for someone to have no clear conception of what a primary is – even if he or she was about to vote in it.
It's sobering but important to remember how little most of what is happening registers.