In less than 60 days (hopefully), our country will have decided upon who our next president will be. This election season has gone on so long that sometimes it seems like we have been trying to elect a new president since a few days after we elected the current president.
For me, I thought that 2008 was going to be the apex of my political life. I remember steadfastly following the minute ups and downs of the entire season, starting before the primaries and all the way up until Barack Obama celebrated in Grant Park. It was larger than life, filled with an amazing cast of characters and sound bite after sound bite, each moment trying to top the previous one. I even devoured Game Change, the book about the 2008 election, knowing full well that it was part history and part gossip. I just couldn’t get enough.
But once it was over, I figure that was the end. No other election would live up to the spectacle of that one. But I was wrong. I am just as obsessed with this election as I was with the last one. Maybe even more. Never did I think I would be in this place.
I remember the first election that I ever voted in. The year was 1984 and my first grade class had a mock vote between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. I’m not sure which candidate I voted for (I think it was Reagan), but I know that President Reagan ran away with Mrs. McCarthy’s first grade class by a wider margin than he did in the actual election. (Maybe we should be looking at elementary school votes as predictors for the actual election!)
Since that fateful day, I really only took a passing interest in politics. I remember in 1988 being surprised to learn that the vice president did not typically win a presidential election once his running mate was out of office (Martin van Buren in 1836 was last last one to do it). I remember being underwhelmed when I got to vote in my first election, sending in an absentee ballot in 1996 and basing my decision solely on one peripheral issue. I always assumed it was because I just wasn’t that into politics. But then the 2000 election happened.
I never really cared that much about who won that election. I actually was not particularly impressed with Mr. Gore nor Mr. Bush that year. But when I started watching the returns come in that night, I couldn’t stop watching. I was glued to the TV. I could not fathom the possibility that the night would end without a winner being declared. I finally had to force myself to go to bed that night because I while I was pretty sure that there would be no new developments from midnight to 6am (and I kind of had important classes for medical school the next morning), I didn’t want to miss anything.
Fast forward to today. Despite thinking that no election could top the last one, I find myself just as engrossed as ever before. Maybe even more than ever. Some of this is attributed to there being big issues at stake in this election that I have some stake in. But some of it is the pure historical spectacle of the whole thing. Can an incumbent win with the economy in its current middling state and unemployment numbers which historically would be a non-starter for an incumbent? Can a candidate win despite being relatively disliked by the voting public, both inside of and outside of his party? Will a third party candidate once again derail one of the mainstream candidate’s goal of being the next president of the United States? Will there be a tie in the Electoral College?
And now, more questions of an historic nature to have answered on November 6th. Mitt Romney was on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ on Sunday morning to press his point of view on various issues and support his candidacy. At one point, he was talking about what his proposals for changes to the federal tax system would be and as per usual, he was devoid of specifics. When the interviewer, pressed him for details, Mr. Romney basically said that principles of his plan should be enough for the voters to trust him. Reading that response, I was livid. People should just trust you because you say so? Ridiculous! How could someone run for president without actually putting forth ideas of what he wanted to do?
Then, I went out to mow the lawn and I had some time to think. I started to think about how President Obama was doing mostly the same thing. Leading up to his speech at the Democratic convention, everyone kept saying that he “had” to present some new, specific ideas for where he planned to take the country if he were re-elected. I watched with baited breath on Thursday night and the ideas never came. Where did all of the ideas go?
At first, I was disappointed in the entire situation. In these times with big questions surrounding us on all sides, how can neither candidate have any specific answers? But the more I thought about it, instead of disillusioning me about the current state of American politics, I actually became more fascinated. Despite all of the hype, super PACs, conventions and surrogates pushing agendas and platforms, for the first time that I know of this is an Election about Nothing. A Seinfeld Election, if you will.
Mitt Romney’s platform is essentially “Vote for me because I am not Barack Obama”. I am sure he has specific ideas for how to make the country better if he is president, but he hasn’t really shared them because it’s too risky. If you put out ideas, then voters start thinking about you and evaluating you and then they can reject you. But if have an opponent who is not universally popular, in an economy that is not incumbent friendly, why not just keep pointing out how you are not the current president and see what happens. It’s not the sexiest campaign, but it is not a horrible strategy. But has anyone ever run for president with this kind of strategy? More importantly, can you actually win with a strategy of “Vote for me for president because I am not currently the president”? As a history enthusiast, I am looking forward to the answer to that question.
Maybe this is why Mitt Romney has such a likability problem. People like to point to his Mormon faith or the fact that he might not be a “true conservative” at heart, but maybe he is turning people off because he is safe. America is not a “play it safe” kind of country. We are a country of pioneers and risk-takers and gamblers. Is it possible that his party sees that this was an election that was ripe for the taking and instead of going all in, Romney is just dipping his toe in?
President Obama has decided to join in the Seinfeld Election, which may actually make more sense for him than for Mitt Romney. The president knows that for many Republicans, the number one goal is to vote him out of office. There is probably no idea that he could push forward that would convince Republicans to vote for him. He also knows that he is relatively popular in his own party, especially when the alternative is a Republican president. And while pushing new and interesting ideas might be a way to show contrast with his “idea-less” opponent, they might also just be lost in the cacophony of partisan politics. So, if you are the president and you know you have a phenomenal infrastructure set up across the country from the last election, you are relatively likable candidate and an opponent that is playing it safe, why not try to turn this into a beauty pageant?
When you read all of the articles that talk about which candidate people would rather go to dinner with, have a beer with or who they like more, it seems like TMZ or US Weekly kind of reporting. But maybe in a Seinfeld Election, these actually are the most important metrics to watch. If you see Mitt Romney giving an exclusive interview to OK! Magazine or Barack Obama as a guest mentor on The Voice, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And just pray that this is not the next portrait hanging in the White House.