Opinion: All Too Quiet On The Eastern Front
Without billboards, bumper stickers, and attack ads, how can we be sure there really is an election?
By Michael Aron
Where are the lawn signs? Where are the bumper stickers? We're in the midst of a riveting presidential campaign. There are three weeks until election day. But I saw many more Obama '08 and McCain signs four years ago than I'm seeing Obama '12 and Romney this October.
Could it be that New Jerseyans are really not following the presidential race very closely? Are we all a bit numb from the Great Recession? Has the disappointment in some quarters over Obama's presidency suggested that it really doesn't matter who we elect, we're going to get a centrist corporatist presidency in any event?
I learned a lesson about lawn signs in 1993. There were three Republicans running for the nomination that year to go up against Gov. Jim Florio: Christie Whitman, Cary Edwards, and Jim Wallwork. Right before the June primary, the state was flooded with Edwards signs, the Route 1 corridor especially.
Living in that corridor at the time, I decided that Edwards was going to win the primary. He didn't. From that day on I've stopped considering lawn signs as any kind of determining factor in predicting the outcome of an election.
But still you'd think you'd see more action on the streets and billboards and bumper stickers than we're seeing this fall.
Part of it, no doubt, is that we are not a battleground state. We don't see the ads. We don't get the candidates visiting us (except to raise money behind closed doors). The election is in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, and Colorado. Those people get the electricity of the on-the-ground campaigning, the nastiness and cleverness of the ads. They are the ones exposed to the lies and distortions, the direct appeal for their votes, the excitement of a good old-fashioned barnburner of a race.
And make no mistake -- it is a barnburner. I wonder if there are more lawn signs and bumper stickers in those swing states than the skimpy assortment we're seeing here.
When I think about the excitement of a presidential race, I think of the night in 1996 that Bob Dole passed through North Jersey like a lightning bolt at 4:30 in the morning. He was on a three-day, last-ditch, 72-hour bus sprint across the country, stopping every 90 minutes or so around the clock. He was scheduled to get to the Bendix Diner at the juncture of Routes 46 and 17 around 3:00 a.m.
I was out there with a cameraman, lots of other media, and about 300 hearty souls either Republican or curious.
It was a cold night. Floodlights and TV lights made it feel like a Hollywood set. The Dole bus was nowhere to be seen at 3:00 am, or 3:30, or 4:00. We were all freezing. The tripods were set up on top of some kind of flatbed truck or bus rooftop across from the lit-up neon sign of the Bendix.
Finally, around 4:30 the Dole bus pulled in and Dole was hoisted to some kind of riser, where he gave a raspy exhausted wishful speech about how the momentum was shifting. When it was over, I got to shout a couple of questions up at him and got a couple of good answers. And then it was home to bed with the event still reverberating in my brain. He was there probably a total of 10 minutes.
Now, it's all being filtered through Rachel Maddow, Sean Hannity, and Anderson Cooper.
We have our U.S. Senate race, of course. But that, too, has been a kind of sleepy affair -- at least so far. Bob Menendez and Joe Kyrillos have done three broadcast debates, but nothing has really crashed through as an issue or talking point. I was on the panel for the first debate at Montclair State University, co-sponsored by NJTV and North Jersey Media Group (Bergen Record). For some reason, it was easier to come up with questions for Kyrillos than for Menendez, whose voting record is more difficult to deconstruct or at least less well known to those of us stationed in Trenton.
And while Kyrillos makes a good argument against the Democrat, he doesn't seem to be winning the argument -- or losing it. They're just having a standard Democrat-Republican moment.
Kyrillos is a very nice guy. "Everybody likes Joe," someone said recently. But Menendez is a pro, a smart and well-seasoned politician who seems never to be off his game. Whoever told him to talk about the middle class this year drilled it into him. Kyrillos tries to paint him as a liberal ideologue who can't work with Republicans. Menendez's rejoinder is that in the Legislature, "Joe voted with his party 90 percent of the time."
Only 90 percent? You mean, he actually departed from Gov. Chris Christie on one of every ten votes? I'd have guessed the number was more like 98 percent, given the kind of party discipline Trenton Republicans have enforced.
I covered Christie campaigning with Kyrillos at the Princetonian Diner in West Windsor. It added a little juice to the campaign. The media were out in force because Chris Christie attracts cameras and reporters. The governor said he is scheduled to do this kind of retail stop with Kyrillos five more times before the election, which will shine a bit more attention on the Republican candidate, who badly needs it.
The negative ads in this race haven't started yet. The TV spots have been positive so far -- a rarity, to be commended. How long it will last, one can only guess. My guess: not long.
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