We’ve all done it.
We walk into a voting booth with strong determination to vote for one candidate or another, only to be confronted by a wall of strange names.
Who are these people? Why haven’t I heard of them? And what exactly does a surrogate court judge do?
I’m as guilty as the next guy, even though I work in politics. Especially when I get way down ballot — who is she again? Total blank.
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve closed one eye and pulled a lever with zero confidence in my choice. When stuck, I usually revert to party line — then complain when others do it. I have a guilty memory of voting for an Irish name years ago in a down-ballot primary, just because. Totally anti-American, I know.
It’s especially bad in presidential years when there’s wall-to-wall media coverage about the top of the ticket, and very little about anything else. This year’s been ridiculous. The entire nation’s been talking about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton — mostly Trump of course — every minute of every day. There’s been room for nothing else.
Candidates trying to get “free media” — press coverage — have largely run into a brick wall this year, other than at the very local level as elections draw near. But it’s been tough there, too. Many newsrooms have been depleted to cut costs in the digital age; even if they wanted to feature that gem of a surrogate court judge race, they’d have no one to cover it.
The digital age hasn’t just changed how elections are covered, it’s changed voters themselves. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, at the U.S. National Library of Medicine, reports that “the average attention span of a human being . . . dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013. This is one second less than the attention span of a goldfish,” the center observes.
We have to be down to seven or six by now.
If you haven’t noticed, campaigns have adjusted to this new reality by dumbing down already dumbed-down campaign content. Candidates issued detailed position papers 20 years ago; now they release hyper-targeted Facebook memes. Direct mail is written to leave an impression in the time it takes to pull it from a stack of bills and toss it in the recycling. Seriously.
When I was a kid, I used to lie in bed and dream of writing speeches so persuasive and inspiring that all mankind would swoon before them. This year, I actually floated the idea of printing lawn signs that read: “Vote Johnson: He’s the Good Guy.” (That wasn’t actually the candidate’s name.)
But that failed to take into account that, for all we moan about it, negative campaigning is what’s proven to be most effective. Maybe the lawn signs should have read: “Johnson Good. Baxter Bad.”
There’s always 2017.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.