On the day after the primary election in Nevada and 10 other states, New York Times columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks sat down for one of their periodic chats on the news. Collins asked what had happened to all the angry voters.
“David, I’m shocked by the lack of team spirit shown by Arkansas Democrats in their Senate primary,” she said. “Here we had a perfectly good scenario going about angry voters and doomed incumbents and the end of political moderation. Then they go and renominate Blanche Lincoln, who is not only an incumbent but an incumbent wishy-washy moderate, whose re-election campaign has basically been: ‘I’m head of the Agriculture Committee. Let me stay in Washington and continue to get you stuff.’ ”
Across the nation, voters nominated big business executives, incumbents, and long-familiar figures—hardly the product of voter resentment.
In Nevada, incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons with his “no new taxes” mantra should have been the beneficiary of any angry voter backlash. He lost renomination by attracting slightly more than a fourth of the Republican vote. Collins cited the Gibbons defeat as an example of vanishing angry voters, if they ever existed.
Indications of angry Nevada voters that have been cited are the high “None of these candidates” tallies in the Democratic primaries for governor and U.S. Senate and the Republican choice of Sharron Angle for U.S. Senate. But political pros say there is less to those factors than meets the eye. Angle’s nomination was more an indication of the power of money in politics than of angry voters, they say.
Two right wing political action committees, the Republican Tea Party Express in Sacramento and the Club for Growth in Washington, D.C., poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Nevada on Angle’s behalf in a concentrated period late in the primary campaign. Until then, Angle was bogged down in single digits, unable to exploit the mistakes of establishment contender Sue Lowden. Angle won the primary by a plurality, not a majority, drawing 40 percent of the vote in a 12-candidate field (13 candidates, if the “None of these candidates” ballot option is included).
“Give me $800,000 and two weeks to spend it in, and I’ll get some nonentity nominated for you, too,” said one Republican political consultant.
Reno political scientist Fred Lokken said, “And let’s face it, these buys—the advertising blitz, she was nose to nose and toe to toe, and any Lowden ad, it was always followed throughout the day [by an Angle ad]. They bought a lot of advertising.”
Lokken said Angle’s fellow Republicans were probably constrained from attacking her very fiercely because of her physical demeanor. Angle smiles constantly and is physically diminutive. Getting too harsh in advertising, Lokken believes, could well have backfired, so her opponents limited their attacks to her supposed support for Scientology prison programs.
In addition, her fellow Republicans were handicapped in going after Angle on some of her issue stances, such as shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency, because that could have alienated the Republican base. Reid is not hobbled that way.
As for the high numbers of “None of these candidates” votes in the two Reid races, it’s helpful to remember that these were Democratic votes. Nevada political scientist David Damore says that at least in Harry Reid’s case, the high number of “None” votes (10.6 percent) was a case of “liberal angst”—liberal unhappiness with Reid’s conservative stances. He cited opinion surveys showing this.
“And I think that showed up in some of the health care polling here over the winter and the spring that people just don’t think he’s done enough for the liberal cause,” he said.
One Nevada news photographer observed, “I think the primary came out the way the national Republican leadership wanted it to, because they like the way Reid votes with them.”
If liberals are unhappy with Reid, does that mean they will stay home in November or skip the U.S. Senate race if they do vote?
“I don’t think so,” Damore said. “I think that they can use Sharron Angle to scare hell out of people. You know, ‘When push comes to shove, is this really what you want?’ which is, at base, the media argument that they’re going to make.”
Rory Reid’s “None” tally in the governor’s race (15.3 percent) was even higher than Harry Reid’s, but that frequently happens in races where candidates are relatively unknown, and Rory Reid is still obscure outside Clark County.
The notion of “voter anger” was also exaggerated by news coverage. By repeatedly failing to distinguish between Tea Party movement groups and Republican front groups, journalists led readers and viewers to believe that the Tea Party movement is a bigger deal than it really is at a time when a Pew survey showed a fourth of voters had never heard of the movement.
In addition, reporters made no linkage between disenchanted voters and likely turnout. Both Lokken and Damore say a lot of angry voters are so cynical about the process that they don’t vote, yet their supposed high numbers drove reporters’ assumptions about the election.
“There’s anger, but you’ve got to look at the number of people that don’t participate in our electoral process, and out here it’s even worse in the West,” Lokken said. “I think that the frustration just doesn’t know where to direct itself. It thinks that basically anybody that’s out there is an idiot and a moron, and it’s not worth their time and investment to go vote for them.”
Angle also benefited from the notion that she was a Tea Party candidate, even though no Tea Party group endorsed her and, in fact, one of them issued a statement to distance itself from her. Once again, journalists failed to tell the public that the Tea Party Express, which endorsed Angle, is a Republican front group, and only a couple of Nevada news entities reported that Tea Party Nation, an actual Tea Party movement organization, issued a statement on the Nevada race: “In Nevada, Sharron Angle is not the only conservative candidate running in this race. … We can no longer stand aside and let misinformation about the Nevada race go uncontested.”
One interesting aspect of news coverage of the campaign was that Nevada voters could get relevant information about their local U.S. Senate campaign from national news sources but not local entities. The Tea Party Nation statement was posted by Fox News and the Atlantic Monthly magazine website but not by, say, Reno television stations or the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Many news organizations still link Angle to the Tea Party.
Columnist and labor activist Andrew Barbano argues that the principal effect of “voter anger” was not in outcome of primaries but in candidate stances—it drove candidates into positions they might not otherwise have taken.
If it turns out that they were overreacting to a phantom created by journalists responding to the loudest groups, the joke will be on the public, which will have to live with the consequences of those candidate pledges.
“On the Republican side, it made the Republicans very scared—because the tea baggers were so vocal, it forced all the Republicans to turn into right-wing moon howlers,” Barbano said.
He said the notion of voter anger also had an impact on Democrats, who responded by “talking about jobs, job, jobs.”
And if a primary doesn’t attract voter anger, what chance will there be of it in a general election, when the votes really count? Primaries have traditionally been elections in which voters are more free-swinging in their decisions, knowing that nothing is final.