Confession of a Former Low-Information Voter
I have an embarrassing confession to make: I was once a low-information voter. Indeed, I entered the voting booth that Election Day with only sketchy ideas about some of the candidates based upon bits and pieces of news I had caught on the fly, and I was still uncertain as to who was going to get my vote. The incumbent was the media's favorite but had made a mess of everything. His main challenger was dismissed as stupid when he wasn't being despised for being evil. There was a third-party candidate on the ballot who seemed to be my kind of guy on a tribal identity level. How was I to decide?
The year was 1980. Four months earlier, after six years of clerical and quasi-clerical work following receiving my BA, I had finally landed by first career position in Chicago. Not only had I been charged with helping turn around a troubled operation that couldn't get a handle on rising costs, but I was going to law school four nights a week and on Saturday mornings. I tried to read the local newspaper on my morning commute and over lunch, and I was even able to catch that news feature ABC had recently introduced with the Iranian hostage crisis, Nightline. I actually thought I was very well-informed. In hindsight, the problem was that almost everything I was seeing and reading had been filtered by editors and producers. In 1980, there was no chance for someone with my schedule to see any more than brief snippets of footage of candidates on the stump. Because the debate conflicted with my classes, I wasn't able to watch even any of that. I could read the side-by-side interviews of the candidates print publications would run, but you don't get as much of a feel for the person from such works.
In a comment on a thread after an August Commentary article by John Pohoretz, "Romney's Strategy Isn't Working," someone using the name Mike_Ste noted, "For that matter, Reagan was not Reagan in 1980." That phrase summed up exactly what I experienced as I tried to get a feel for the candidates during the 1980 campaign compared to what I knew with my own eyes as early as January 20, 1981. For once the election was over, the media had to show more of the unfiltered Reagan simply to report on the day's events. And the more people saw of Reagan, the less they listened to the media's attempts to label him and made up their own minds. But on November 4, 1980, Reagan was not yet Reagan to many American voters.
I had already dismissed Carter as being too much of a disappointment, but I wasn't at all sure about Reagan. First there was that media image. Senile, stupid, reckless, war-mongering, right-wing religious fanatic, racist, sexist -- you name it, and someone in the media had used the label -- if not for Reagan, then for his supporters. It wasn't as anti-Republican as it is today. Liberal Republican-turned-third-party candidate John Anderson got good press. By and large, so did Reagan's running mate, George H.W. Bush. The problem in the press was conservatism, and especially the more conservative supporters of Reagan.
To be honest, I found some of those supporters a problem, too. I had begun the year in St. Paul, Minnesota. It's a caucus state, so you know quite intimately who is for which candidate. There usually weren't many Republicans at the caucus in our working-class Catholic neighborhood. That changed in 1980, and my mother, the politically active one in the family, wasn't entirely happy about it. Mom had gotten involved in politics when she was in college as part of the good government movement, often called the goo-goos. St. Paul was a terribly corrupt town in the '20s and '30s, full of bootleggers and other gangsters. State government was also very corrupt. In 1938, young reformers like her helped elect 32-year-old Harold Stassen governor on a good government platform, and he became that era's Scott Walker. In the Spring of 1980, Mom and I were for Bush, but a whole bunch of new people had showed up at the caucus for Reagan, some of whom my mother told me had only a few years earlier been Democrats. I know now that part of it was my mother's snobbery. She loved to remind me that she and my father had both attended college, a rarity among the parents of my childhood friends, though to be correct about it, Dad had actually majored in football. Still, I carried that image of slightly uncouth Reagan supporters with me for some time, and it was reinforced by the media's constant tying of Reagan to people like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. Not. Our. Kind. Of. People.
John Anderson, on the other hand, was exactly the type of candidate our good government family had always preferred. So as I tried to follow the campaign while working hard at a new job, learning a new city, and studying law, I found myself favoring Anderson and hoping he would gain support. When Election Day 1980 finally arrived, it was pretty clear that that wasn't going to happen. Until right before the election, the polls suggested that despite all the high inflation and interest rates at home and the chaos in Iran, Jimmy Carter was going to be re-elected.
I remember standing in the voting booth for a long time on November 4, 1980. My heart wanted to vote for John Anderson, but I almost started shaking when I thought what four more years of Jimmy Carter might bring. Sure, I had finally found a really good job, but the economy itself was still in terrible shape, something that I saw every day at work. Then there was the dangerous and embarrassing situation abroad. Where would it all end?
I remembered two things from my past. The first was some dishonestly bad press some of my mother's friends had once received. Had the press been fair to Reagan this election year? The second was how as we watched the 1964 "A Time for Choosing" speech for Goldwater, my late father had turned to my mother and said, "Now that's the man who should be running for president!" Dad didn't like politics, but he had been a pretty good judge of people, and he had liked Reagan. Surely Reagan just had to be better than four more years of what we had just gone through.
I finally bit my lip and voted for Ronald Reagan. So did a lot of other voters that night. And, perhaps in the real shock of the evening, they also elected a dozen new Republican senators. The Democrats' permanent Senate majority, announced after the "Watergate" elections of 1974 and 1976, proved very short-lived.
While I had voted entirely against Carter, I soon felt very good about having voted for Reagan. In January 1977, Carter had come in as the self-righteous outsider who was going to straighten out Washington. He'd called House and Senate leaders to the White House and announced what he wanted to change. While still president-elect, Reagan met with House and Senate leaders in their offices on Capitol Hill. Not only was it the correct gesture for someone who had never worked in Washington, D.C., but it showed that Reagan understood that you lead by working with people rather than by proclaiming your moral superiority. When not even a would-be assassin's bullet could dampen Reagan's positive outlook, I was ashamed of having taken him as the war-mongering buffoon the media tried to portray him as during the 1980 campaign. With time, I even came to appreciate most of his more conservative followers.
As low-information voters look at their ballots in early voting stations this week and at the polls on Tuesday, I suspect that a great many will have thoughts similar to mine in 1980. In 2008, many of them voted for a man who was never really there. Thanks to the internet and cable replays, they have had more of a chance to see with their own eyes the two candidates talk to each other than I had in 1980. If there are still doubts, I suspect that many will look at the voting screen and think about what the last four years have been like. Businesses closing. College grads who can't find work. Americans humiliated and even being killed overseas because of naïve policies and placing what is best for one's career over what is best for the nation.
Everything I know about politics from my earliest memories of getting an I Like Ike button at the Minnesota State Fair tells me that millions of voters are going to decide in the coming days: Surely Romney just has to be better than four more years of what we have just gone through!