What’s Missing In This Election? Bread and Circuses

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

The Romans got it right: if you want to keep the people happy, you give them bread and circuses.  But California politicians forgot that rule; and consequently we are about to have a primary with possibly an historic low turnout of voters.  The lowest primary turnout ever was June 2014; June 2018 could match it.

According to the absentee vote tracker at Political Data Inc, some 1.6 million ballots have been tabulated by the counties.  That is probably about a third of the total expected turnout.  The vote so far is older (half the voters are over the age of 65), heavily white (only 14 percent Latino, 11 percent Asian), and more Republican.

Consider that two years ago at this point (six days from the election), 2.1 million ballots had been tabulated, Democrats were returning ballots at well ahead of their percent of registered voters, as were Republicans.  This year Republicans are way ahead of their registration, but Democratic ballots are coming in at just their party registration. 

All the evidence shows a lack of interest in this election, in fact, the turnout so far is the regular voters who vote in every election come rain or shine.  Where are the Democrats in the seven targeted GOP congressional districts?  With the exception of an Orange-San Diego county seat, they are hard to find.  It is older Republicans who seem to be returning their mail in ballots.

Here’s the problem: the candidates are not providing bread and circuses to entice the voters.  Oh, there is a major national circus that entertains with one merry-go-round after another, and that is President Trump.  He puts on a different circus act every week, and as a result he has sucked all the energy out of American politics.  The low interest in California’s election is just one example.

This week the national press followed him to Nashville for one of his heartland rallies, waiting with baited breath to see if he commented on the self immolation of Roseanne Barr, while Trump basked in the love of his adoring crowds.

Yet this same national media, and the state media, failed completely to cover the massive rally for Gavin Newsom at Giants Stadium, or the huge crowd cheering for Antonio Villaraigosa at Dodger Stadium.  Why is this?  Perhaps it was because there was no Newsom rally; there was no Villaraigosa rally.

California has had one of the most antiseptic campaigns in history, flesh and blood candidates are nowhere to be seen.  This is a battle between political consultants who are spending millions of dollars on television and direct mail.  The candidates are little more than bloodless names on a ballot.

As just one example, a group of charter schools supporting billionaires have spent $17 million on an independent expenditure promoting Villaraigosa.  This has included an appeal to Republicans to cross over and vote for Villaraigosa.  The problem is the message is confusing and the mail to Republicans some of the worst ever produced. One piece supports three different candidates for governor: Villaraigosa, Travis Allen, who is described as “too conservative”, and someone named Robert Newman no one has ever heard of.

It also includes an attack on the leading GOP candidate, businessman John Cox, noting that he “opposed Donald Trump”.  But, in fact, the one clear message of the past week is Trump’s endorsement of Cox.  That has vaulted Cox into second place in most polls, ahead of Villaraigosa who seems to be fading despite the $17 million independent expenditure.

So in this state that is supposed to be ground zero for Trump hating, his endorsement seems to have upended the governor’s race that seemed just a month ago to be between the leading Democrats.  Republicans have gotten behind Cox on the theory, probably correct, that they need at least a warm body at the top of the ticket to turn out their voters in the fall.

But this primary, the first election in the Trump era, was supposed to be the election in which Democrats turned out in big numbers to select candidates to win Republican House seats this fall and return Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.  With just a few days until the actual election, that does not seem to be happening.  Maybe it will, but time is running out.

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