This year’s political election cycle is still in its pre-convention stage and the one recurring thought is “can it possibly get even uglier?” The personal attacks, the disdain for collegiality, and the unwillingness to engage in civil dialogue make it clear why one of the critical questions for this fall’s election is whether or not segments of the electorate — from Christian evangelicals to previously invigorated young people — will even participate.
The discussion last week over same-sex marriage disgusted fundamentalists who were already turned off by the fact that the apparent Republican nominee is a Mormon. On the other side of the issue, moderate and gay Republicans were furious at the “resignation” of Romney’s just-appointed foreign policy adviser Richard Grenell because it was suggested by the conservative flank that his homosexuality was an electoral liability.
Among Democrats, many young people who were touched and turned on to politics by Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” theme in 2008 are repelled by the realities of the lack of partisanship and compromise plus their own declining economic prospects. Similarly, the African Americans who turned out so enthusiastically for Obama four years ago may look at their own economic struggles and stay home on Election Day, spelling trouble for the Democratic Party.
If these significant blocs stay away from the polls, it could have dramatic influence on the outcome in November. So, too, will a number of factors transforming the two-party system as we know it.
Exhibit A was the comments by Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock on the morning news shows after he defeated six-term Senator Richard Lugar in last week Indiana Republican primary. Not only was Lugar defeated by a Tea Party favorite, their primary race had seen Mourdock attack the 36-year incumbent for being too compromising with Democrats and too bipartisan in his approach to issues, especially on foreign policy matters. On Wednesday morning, Mourdock promised the people of Indiana and the country that if elected there would no longer be any bipartisanship.
Exhibit B was the attacks on President Obama last week for endorsing same-sex marriages. Much of the reaction produced ad hominem attacks on the president and did not even speak to the issue itself.
Exhibit C was the $15 million raised last week at a George Clooney fund-raiser for the president. The take was a mere drop in the bucket of what this year’s presidential contest will cost; probably around $1 billion each for both Obama and Romney. Super PACs and the unknown amounts that they will raise make the demand for campaign finance reform critical. In the Senate race in Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown agreed with his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, not to accept funds from outside groups. So far this effort at personal restraint is not catching on.
Exhibit D is the pandering already underway to court the votes of Jews and many identifiable minority and special-interest communities in key states. After the conventions and before the High Holy Days, candidates for national and state-wide office will do their pro-Israel pitch, further corroding a historic spirit of bipartisanship on the Israel issue in a bid for votes and campaign dollars. In the presidential and Senate races, the battle for Jewish votes will be narrowly focused on several of the key swing states, particularly Florida (3.4 percent Jews), Pennsylvania (2.3 percent), Nevada (2.8 percent), Colorado (1.8 percent), Ohio (1.3 percent), and Virginia (1.2 percent). It is in these states where Jewish voters might have the greatest impact and where Jewish voter support and turnout will be most significant.
Combine these factors — runaway partisanship, character assassination, the corrosive effects of fundraising, and divisive special interest group appeals — and you arrive at a level of cynicism and disappointment being felt across the entire political process.