The answer to whether Nov. 2’s midterm elections will be a referendum on President Barack Obama’s presidency depends on who you talk to … and their party.
Gaye Chapman of Sodus, chair of the Wayne County Democratic Committee, said she hasn’t heard “one single thing” about Obama, only discussion about the local candidates who are running. She considers the statewide and Congressional contests more local in nature than national.
“The national media talk about things a lot and tell us what’s going to happen, yet people here don’t pay too much attention,” said Chapman.
However, Sandy King, chair of the Yates County Republican Party and point person for the Finger Lakes chapter of the tea party, said this year’s midterm elections are “absolutely” a referendum on Obama.
Yet in the next breath King said they are equally as much about the local candidates, who must be examined individually — especially their positions on taxes, spending and a smaller role for govern- ment, issues near and dear to tea partiers.
“We are not ignorant people by any means,” King said of the FL tea party group, which she estimated includes between 200 and 300 people.
She said they consider it their job to research, vet and challenge candidates and make sure elected officials vote according to their constituents’ wishes not those of their parties.
For King, these midterm races are being run not only in Obama’s shadow, but the government as a whole.
“We saw in the last year they did not vote for what the people wanted,” said King, ticking off health care reform and the bank bailout. “There’s a lot of people, they’re not happy with the change they got.”
As Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor Cedric Johnson points out, it’s fairly common for presidents at midterm election time to lose the “election bump” that accompanied them into office.
Johnson, an associate professor of political science, said the same happened to Bill Clinton’s popularity in 1994. And the polls he’s seen on Obama show him comparable to most presidents at this point in their terms.
Still, Johnson and his colleague, DeWayne Lucas, note that Obama ran a highly symbolic campaign of change — which in many arenas hasn’t materialized.
Dissenters aside, Johnson said many supporters expected Obama to be more progressive, yet the Guantanomo Bay detainment facility is still open and troop numbers have escalated in Afghanistan (although they are lower in Iraq).
Lucas, also an associate professor of political science at the Colleges, adds that the political tenor is no different than the pre-Obama-era, too.
“A lot of people thought of him as a big agent of change, but the political conversations today are just like they were two and four years ago,” Lucas said.
Johnson said in some districts the fates of local candidates may rise or fall based on voters’ feelings about Obama, but overall he doesn’t think this election is a referendum on the president. He mentioned that Republicans nationally are connecting incumbents with more “reviled” Democratic figures such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — not Obama.
Lucas believes any swing may not be so much about the president as it is about the enthusiasm Obama generated in 2008. That enthusiasm likely trickled over to Democratic candidates in close races, and now those seats are just going back the other way, he said.
When Johnson spoke at an election forum on campus last week, he discussed the tea party and its role in this election season, likening it to “a latter-day Southern strategy” that Richard Nixon used in the 1968 election.
After the civil rights reforms, Nixon appealed to Southern voters in a way that played on their fears and resentments. Johnson thinks tea partiers are doing the same by mobilizing resentment against immigrants, the poor and those dependent on state aid.
“Congressional districts are local entities and people can run tea party campaigns and make inroads,” said Johnson, who nonetheless believes a strong tea party campaign is harder on a statewide level because its strategy doesn’t work as well in or near cities with a more diverse population.
“Personally, I think there is a strong tea party element in all of the elections in this election period,” Lucas said. “But I’m not sure if it’s huge in the region.”
Finger Lakes Community College professor David Harmon said everyone likes to say politics is local, but he disagrees. He noted many candidates are hurt by national advertising campaigns whose funders are not necessarily disclosed.
As for whether the Obama factor will be large or small, Harmon is unsure.
“I don’t think we’ll know until after [the results] come in,” he said.
But what he does know is that this election cycle is not captivating his students like the presidential race did two years ago.
“They’re not talking about it much,” Harmon said. “Those that are are for their individual candidates, but I don’t see a lot of interest.”
Candidate preferences aside, what bothers Chapman the most is voter apathy and the reluctance to view voting as a civic responsibility.
When she asks people if they are going to vote, she makes a point of not inquiring about their party affiliation. Still, far too many times the answer she hears is “no.”
“They just say, ‘I don’t always vote’ or ‘I just vote in presidential elections,’” said Chapman, who wishes New York had a system like Oregon’s where everyone can vote at home by absentee ballot.
“I feel so bad about that,” she said. “You want to complain, yet you don’t vote.”