Nominations are now open for the Symbolic Voter of the 2000 Election. The Soccer Mom, current occupant of this crucial post, is stepping down to spend more time with her family. She’ll be doing some consulting, joining the boards of a few Internet startups, giving speeches, and maybe writing a book. Or so she says. The truth, of course, is that the media—who decide such things—have used her up. She’s still there grinning for the cameras as she juggles kids, job, and household chores like an act on the old Ed Sullivan Show—but there are no cameras.
Soccer Mom’s fate would be more poignant if she hadn’t been so brutal in muscling aside her predecessor, the Reagan Democrat. One day you couldn’t book a motel room in Macomb County, Mich., because of all the reporters there in search of a beefy union guy who was voting Republican for the first time in his life. The next day they all decamped for a Toys ‘R’ Us in the leafier suburbs. Except for a few appearances together on Larry King, Soccer Mom and Reagan Democrat had little in common. He was a man; she was a woman.
He was lower-middle class with fears of sinking; she was closer to upper middle with hopes of rising. He was an economic liberal being driven away from the Democrats by social and cultural issues; she was an economic conservative being driven away from the Republicans by social and cultural issues. Still, it wouldn’t have killed her to share the Zeitgeist with him for an election cycle or two. Now he sits on the porch of the nursing home, rocking frenetically and inveighing to himself about “that damned woman and her damned errands. Who cares whether Junior’s stupid harp fits into the frigging minivan?”
Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg probably started this tradition back in 1970 with their book The Real Majority, in which they declared that the typical American voter was “un-young, un-poor, un-black” and, specifically, a full-time housewife in Dayton, Ohio. (Their rhetorical point was that the needs of poor, black, young people were getting too much attention. Not a problem anymore!) The newshounds poured into Dayton in search of Mrs. Typical American, and found her—many times, like Princess Anastasia. But all these ladies were soon dethroned.
This repeated cycle of embrace and rejection may seem cruel, but a cardinal rule of journalism is: The story has to change. And over the years the process has served our democracy well. It gives the press a reason and a theme for beloved but otherwise pointless stories quoting the views of half a dozen voters out of millions. Meanwhile, it also gives press-bashers and Beltway-phobes an opportunity to contrast these despised elites with the real America.
So the chair recognizes Robin Toner of the New York Times. In Sunday’s Times she writes that “ground zero in the 2000 campaign” will be “a 65-year-old woman … in a Macomb County, Mich., suburb, with an affection for the Bush family …, a concern for the country’s values … and mounting medication bills.”
Hmmm. Not bad, Robin. It’s nice to be back in Macomb County. But we need a name. “Pill Grannies”? “Bushois Barbaras”? You work on that, while I pass along some other nominees, in descending order of plausibility:
“Portfolio Populists.” More people own stocks than ever before. Stocks are a bigger part of their nest eggs. And—possibly most important—they can now follow the value of their holdings, with the click of a button, on the Internet. And many do that, constantly. (I name no names. You know who I am—I mean, who you are.) This has created an unprecedented obsession with the stock market. When every change in a voter’s net worth is thrown in her face, non-economic issues loom smaller. Even worse, many small investors may be developing a nightmarish Social Security-like sense of entitlement. This is our money! If stocks go down, they will be looking for a politician to blame.
“Stem-cell McCainiacs.” These are people from across the political spectrum who fell in love with John McCain during the Republican primaries. Like stem cells, McCain appears to be a neutral entity with the miraculous ability to become whatever an individual patient needs. Right-to-life McCainiacs admire his hard-core anti-abortion voting record; liberal McCainiacs are convinced he’s secretly pro-choice. The McCainiac creed: Love him for what he says today, or wait for him to apologize for it. But with McCain out, will McCainiacs be willing to vote for politicians who openly share their views?
“Middle-Seat Road Warriors.” Six-figure proletarians of the New Economy who fly coach and never manage to get an upgrade. Run ragged by capitalism at its most frenzied, they are for lower taxes but more regulation (requiring airlines to change the movie more than once a month, for example). They are basically Republican, but may vote for Gore in the hope that he will shorten their commute by getting other people to give up their cars.
“Oxymorons.” Gay Republicans, black Republicans. These are people who really, really want a capital gains tax cut. What other explanation could there be? Though few in number, they are disproportionately influential because every single one has been on television. Every black Republican is a famous black Republican. (Many observers believe that Democratic Microsoft employees also qualify as Oxymorons in this election.)
“Angry Appliances.” Threatened by imports, their sources of power under attack by environmentalists, their very aesthetic widely mocked as hopelessly 1970s, America’s refrigerators, oven ranges, and dishwashers are dismayed, disgusted and, at the moment, unfortunately, disenfranchised. But they have always been very plugged in, and if they do get the vote during the next four years, they could well be the deciding force in the election of 2004.