Ten days after the election, I took our collies for their regular morning romp at one of Albuquerque’s dog parks. I pulled up alongside an ancient vehicle. In the window was a declaration: “If Obama is too stupid to understand what the voters said this year, we need to repeat the message in 2012.”
Some more information about this declaration:
• It was not a slick, printed bumper sticker, but a laser-printed full-size sheet of white paper taped to the rear window.
• It was not on a Humvee or even an SUV but on a battered, square-backed station wagon of indeterminate vintage.
• It said “Obama” not “President Obama.”
• It assumed that anyone reading it would understand what the voters were saying in 2010, and that the driver shares that understanding.
However, I don’t. After reading dozens of analyses and interpretations of the results from every imaginable perspective, I’m not willing to say that there is a single message from the voters. However, there are definitely some lessons to be learned—for Democrats and Republicans alike.
In New Mexico, the tale of the scoreboard was not that everyone has grown more conservative since they handed Obama a landslide victory (by a margin three times the size of Susana Martinez’ over Lt. Gov. Diane Denish). Instead, it’s that the people who voted were older and more right wing than folks who cast ballots in 2008.
Turnout, turnout and turnout. That’s the first lesson for Democrats. If about 7 percent more of the registered Democrats in this state had been motivated to get to the polls and vote for her, Denish would have won. Instead, the Republicans, with only 32 percent of the state’s registered voters, turned out and carried the day.
After reading dozens of analyses and interpretations of the results from every imaginable perspective, I’m not willing to say that there is a single message from the voters.
Democrats in New Mexico only lose when they don’t get out the vote—and they didn’t this year. So the question, as they contemplate how to avoid future repeats of this unhappy outcome, is: Where did the 200,000 “unlikely to vote” Democrats who pushed the party to its sweeping victory in 2008 go? And will the party be able to re-energize them in the future?
That will be the indicator for the next few electoral cycles. When Democrats field candidates and talk issues that inspire voters under 30 (as well as the dependable party mainstays), then they will win.
I also hope that future Dem candidates will avoid the pitfall of waging a negative campaign. Denish was advised to get down in the mud and match Martinez blow for blow. That’s the conventional wisdom: respond in kind to every attack. That might work elsewhere, but this year in New Mexico it was a mistake—and she said as much during her concession speech in the last hours of Nov. 2.
She could have emphasized her solid accomplishments as lieutenant governor and provided detailed plans for dealing with New Mexico’s problems. That would have enhanced her chances. It would have increased turnout and put Martinez’ relative lack of experience in sharp contrast.
But I have deeper fears about this election cycle—nationally and here in our state. I’m concerned about the corrosive effect of uncontrolled big campaign money. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates. Now corporate dollars can buy great gobs of expensive 30-second TV spots containing propagandistic, untrue and slanderous material.
This is a bonanza for television stations and for the producers of campaign commercials. But if this first election conducted under the new no-holds-barred rules is any indication, it portends a dismal electoral future for the rest of us.
Outside the already outrageous campaign millions the candidates themselves raise and spend, there are now untold millions being thrown around by unregulated front groups for multinational corporations. They hide behind innocuous names like “The Alliance for a Responsible America.” The money can be spent “on behalf” of a candidate and doesn’t have to be reported to anyone.
These dollars buy 30- and 15-second television ads, essentially tiny sound bites. Sound bites this brief cannot deal in nuance, detail or complexity. Thus they focus on eliciting raw emotion, usually fear or anger. This prevents, not fosters, conversation about substantive issues. The result is the dumbing-down of campaigns, the irking of America.
Voters aren’t inspired to vote—they’re scared or irritated into voting. We are manipulated, not informed. Many strike back by not voting at all.
This time it was the Republicans who benefited, so they can be expected to resist any attempt at reforming the decayed system into which we have fallen. Still, it might be Democrats or a third party eating the Republicans’ lunch in a future scenario. The menace isn’t the party wielding the big bucks. It is the big bucks leveraging whichever party it can access.