Cry of the voters: Represent ME!

by John MacBeath Watkins

Okay, the floodgates are open. I'm doing a second political post.

I can't stop myself, because so much tosh has been written about the mood of American voters.

Supposedly, they are in an anti-incumbent mood, ready to throw the bums out, which should be bad news for the ruling party. This is supposed to be the Republicans' year.

In theory, one way to track this is through by-elections, those special elections that take place on a different schedule than general elections, generally to fill a vacant seat. Because they tend to have lower turnout, they should favor the party with the most enthusiastic (or ticked-off) voters. They also tend to favor the party with older voters and wealthier voters, because those are the people who tend to vote in all the elections, not just the big ones. In practice, that should mean Republicans have a second advantage in these elections.

So far during the Obama administration, there have been eight House by-elections, one of them in the Hawaiian district where Obama grew up.

That one went to the Republicans, because two Democrats split the Democratic vote. The other seven, NY20, IL5, CA32, CA10, NY23, FL19, and PA12, have gone to the Democrats. In NY 23, which had been reliably Republican for generations, two Republicans split the vote, but one of them announced she was withdrawing before the ballot -- and endorsed the Democrat.

In Massachusetts, Republican Scott Brown famously defeated Democrat Martha Coakley for Edward Kennedy's old Senate seat.

These results don't indicate that people favor one of the political parties over the other. In fact, it looks to me like they don't favor the parties at all. Republicans have failed to take seats that they could have, because they tried to nationalize the campaigns and make them about President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They were beaten by people who showed they knew their districts and knew the local issues their constituents cared about.

Coakley made several gaffes that made her look like she didn't know and/or care about things local. Criticized for going to a Washington fundraiser instead of campaigning, she said "as opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold?" Voters decided they were no more enthusiastic about her than she was about meeting them. Brown won not be being an ideologue, but by convincing voters he was one of them.

With their current representatives voting too often in a lockstep, party-line manner, with money corrupting the process and lobbyists writing legislation, voters want representatives who represent them, not a party or an ideology or an industry with lots of money to throw around.

In places like NY23, the Republicans have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by putting up candidates who don't know the local issues. One would think by this time they would have learned their lesson, but organizations are not rational actors. If the party puts more emphasis on ideology than on knowing what the voters in a district or state want, it will get candidates who are ideologically pure, and knowing their turf will be a matter that does not affect the selection process.

If you are not serious about knowing the voters' needs and serving them, a candidate should expect rejection.