With only one week to go before the U.S. presidential election, the nation’s capital is eerily void of campaign noise – and not just because of superstorm Sandy.
There’s only a week to go before election day, but, walking around Washington, you’d never know it. There’s not an election sign or billboard in sight. If you didn’t turn on the television or the radio, you’d never know that campaigning has been fierce, and that the two presidential candidates are neck and neck in the polls.
The District of Columbia has only three electoral-college votes, no representatives in Congress, and about three-quarters of the population routinely votes Democrat. The city has a high proportion of African-American voters and what the political right calls “limousine liberals” – relatively affluent and well-educated voters who support the Democratic Party. So, although Governor Mitt Romney is fighting to get into the White House and President Barack Obama wants to stay there for four more years, there’s really no contest in the surrounding geography.
Furthermore, inside the Beltway, the city is dominated by federal government buildings, museums, hotels, various institutions of global governance, and embassies, none of which are obviously going to display electoral preference. The lobbyists occupying the architecturally unimaginative concrete and glass blocks along K Street are an exception, but their preferred method of election “advertising” is to fund political-action committees that support or attack either candidate.
As a Canadian, I’m surprised by the silence in Washington. I’ve been in Ottawa during Canadian federal elections, and the sense of both the national and local drama has been palpable. Even in seats that have historically been “safe” for one party or another, there’s always a plethora of billboards, with some mom-and-pop storefront businesses displaying signs for multiple – or even all – candidates. (Side note: I’ve often wondered if this is a public display of mom-and-pop electoral disagreement or a way of playing it safe given uncertain outcomes.)
The nature of the electoral-college system, the critical importance of winning “swing” states, and an evolution towards niche campaigning that targets voters in those states has meant that the U.S. election campaign is a very unevenly felt affair. Even Nate Silver’s popular FiveThirtyEight blog for the New York Times contains a “Return on Investment Index” that tells you the relative likelihood that an individual voter will determine the electoral-college winner. What really matters is that the “battleground” states – where the polls indicate the election results could still go either way – are also “tipping point” states, which could well provide the decisive electoral-college vote that ultimately determines the winner. So, if you’re a voter in Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, or Nevada, your vote is deeply coveted and you’re treated to a barrage of candidate appearances, polling, focus-group testing, and the entire media circus that covers it all. This also means that issues that matter to voters in those states are uploaded to the national stage, and get disproportionate attention.
Canada’s first-past-the-post system means that provinces with larger numbers of seats in the House of Commons matter more, but there’s no “winner takes all” structure as there is with the electoral-college system. Still, Canada is not immune to this kind of niche political marketing – indeed, our parties have imported this electoral expertise from south of the border. In Ontario during the last federal election, federal Tory strategy focused on the three ridings in Brampton. By and large, Toronto didn’t matter, as they knew those votes weren’t going their way, despite the fact that Toronto remains the population centre and the economic engine of both the province and the country.
There are long-term democratic risks here: Strong political incentives exist to pay more attention to the well-being of certain voters between elections, thus increasing the political inequality among voters. Economic inequality has been dramatically on the rise, but it’s been tempting to believe that, at least on the political front, one person equals one vote, and that the billionaire has the same one vote as the working stiff.
Because the American system is awash with soft money that can support presidential and local candidates indirectly, it’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the line between effective propaganda and vote-buying is becoming increasingly blurry. It makes me nervous that the pollsters increasingly talk about political “markets,” as if voting, that quintessential act of citizenship, is reduced to retail consumer behaviour. Add to the mix the various state-level measures to combat the over-hyped problem of voter fraud – measures that are, by and large, thinly veiled attempts to set up roadblocks for certain kinds of voters – and American-style electoral democracy is potentially compromised even further.
Meanwhile, I’d like to get a sense of being “inside the beast” of the American electoral process, especially since I’m in Washington during a presidential election year. My only option, however, is to jump on the subway and head to Virginia, where, depending on whether I get off in Arlington or Alexandria, I might see evidence of the strength of one candidate or another.
Barbara Falk is a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington this fall.