By Nicole Hemmer
Photo by Daniel Oines
Every four years, the yards of America yield a bumper crop of political placards. In 2008 they were ubiquitous. In the fresh green grass of springtime, Clinton-Obama battle flags were raised; in the leaf-layered lawns of fall, folks declared for Obama or McCain.
This year, though, there’s hardly a sign in sight.
Call it the enthusiasm gap. Not between candidates, but between elections. In 2008 the electorate was electrified. They not only itched to pull the lever on election day but they wore their allegiance on their sleeves — or rather, on their lapels. The sidewalks of New York were brimming with button-selling vendors. When I moved to Virginia in the fall of 2008, I could pass through a packed parking lot without seeing a single unstickered bumper.
In that election, voters’ choice became wrapped up in their personal identity. People didn't just vote for Obama, they were Obama voters. That difference was important: the personal connection aided the transition from a voter to an activist, from a supporter to an advocate.
But drive around Miami today and — presuming you've turned down the car radio, where political ads run back-to-back-to-back — you'll find little evidence that a national election is on. While stuck in traffic on US-1 you might spy a bland Romney-Ryan sticker on the Land Rover two spots up, or an equally plain Obama 2012 one on… well, the other Land Rover, three spaces from the first. But these are rare sights even here in the battleground state of Florida. The president will be on campus today for a rally; by the weekend there will be little evidence he swept through.
What does it all mean? It’s not that people aren't paying attention to the election. Placards for local races are everywhere, particularly for the hotly contested Senate race between the Democrat Bill Nelson and the legacy Republican Connie Mack IV. But when it comes to overtly identifying with the presidential candidates, voters have grown skittish.
Perhaps it’s that the race has taken on a markedly negative tone, or that neither ticket is particularly inspiring this go-around. The lack of charismatic leaders is not necessarily a bad thing: absent lofty visions and fuzzy feelings, voters could (potentially) make clear-headed decisions based on the candidates’ quite different governing philosophies.
Yet it’s more likely that the lack of swing-state swag reveals not clear heads but unstirred hearts. To the extent our yard signs are a proxy for our engagement, the bare lawns of Miami reflect the thin soils of voter enthusiasm. And regardless who wins in November, that is a loss for us all.
11 October 2012