Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Politics Is Cheddar

Some phrases are cliché because they're just true. Tip O'Neill's "all politics is local" is one of them. After all, people generally live their daily life entirely in their hometown—national politics are really only relevant when they intrude (welcome or not). Tip O'Neill's truism is the reason that, despite the national attention given to the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, I can guarantee that voters in America's Dairyland weren't thinking about anything outside their state's borders when they voted yesterday.

All the same, articles have already been written tying the result to national trends—namely, how President Barack Obama might expect to fare in Wisconsin in November. (For the record, despite some razor-thin margins there, Wisconsin hasn't gone to the GOP presidential candidate since 1984, when Ronald Reagan won every state but Minnesota.) John Ellis at Buzzfeed took it a step further—he sees the margin of Scott Walker's win as predictive of whether Obama will win an Electoral College majority nationally.

This notion fails both the theoretical test and the empirical one. Wisconsinites knew very well yesterday that they were voting in a specific gubernatorial election—how could they not, considering the extraordinary circumstances surrounding it? Some Senate and governor's elections, held on the same day as presidentials, are subject to the whims of coattails, but this was an unscheduled special election, brought on by a massive movement of signature gathering, motivated by an unprecedented attack on a major special interest. Anyone who has spent time in Wisconsin over the past 18 months knows that collective bargaining and general partisan nastiness dominate the political discussion there currently—not Bain, not Solyndra, not even the economy. The indelible uniqueness of this election—not only in Wisconsin, but unlike anything any state has ever seen before—voids any comparison to Obama-Romney.

In fact, there's at least as much reason to believe that Walker's win is a good omen for Obama. Last night's exit polls, flawed as they were at first, agreed with other pre-election surveys that there are a fair number of "Walker/Obama" voters who plan to split their tickets between now and November; in fact, 17% of Obama supporters testified that they were about to vote to keep the Republican governor in office. That is a sizable chunk of voters who are clearly not ignoring the unique and separate characteristics of the two campaigns; a leading theory is that some voters are simply uncomfortable with the idea of recalls. Whatever the reason, clearly voters find no qualms with considering a national race and a local race independently.

Yet so many people continue to baselessly insist that the two have an inescapable relationship. It's a similar phenomenon to Massachusetts's special senatorial election in January 2010, when Republican Scott Brown edged out Democrat Martha Coakley for the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat. After Brown prevailed in deep blue Massachusetts, pundits saw it as a referendum on President Obama (who had campaigned for Coakley in Boston) and then patted themselves on the back when the Brown-presaged Republican landslide actually did come to pass in November 2010. However, they failed to notice that Massachusetts was one of the few states completely impervious to the GOP's wave election that year—Democrats held onto all 10 House seats and the governor's office despite many competitive races. That was because the Coakley-Brown election was simply a referendum on the candidates in that race—Brown an affable independent and Coakley a stiff, unloveable elitist whose disdain extended even to the state's beloved Red Sox. (This was before the Red Sox themselves became unloveable elitists.)

In 2010's Massachusetts, 2012's Wisconsin, and surely many other examples over the years, national pundits have sought to simplify the complicated political calculus of a million neighborhood issues into an easily relatable national message. On one hand, that's understandable—the national media must cover all 50 states, and it's impossible to keep each one's idiosyncrasies straight. But on the other, it's crucial to keep the proper perspective, and it's important for us (the digesters of that media) to remember that there is no substitute for local knowledge. It's why I urge folks to get their political news from local media sources—be one of the 500 followers of that small-town reporter on the state house beat. They're closer to the voters, and closer to the local decision-makers, too. You'll learn a lot that the national media misses.

1 comment:

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