Jeff Pelline: Right-wing nut jobs vs. pinko Commies |

Jeff Pelline: Right-wing nut jobs vs. pinko Commies

With a contentious election over and the holidays looming, it’s time to reflect: how do you decide who to vote for?

That’s personal, you say. You’re right, so if you don’t want to take a look in the mirror, stop reading. If you do, read on at your own risk. Nobody’s taking notes.

The bottom line, according to many experts, is that issues don’t decide elections; personalities decide who wins and who loses.

“The winning candidate needs to know how to smile convincingly,” according to an ABC News article, “The Psychology of Voting,” citing numerous studies. “We’ve got to like the person more than agree with how he or she stands on the issues.”

Negative campaigning works too, at least to a point. “Negative advertising really works, provided it’s done with enough taste to keep the mudslinger from getting a bit tarnished by his or her own mud,” the article continues.

This happens, even though you vote in the privacy of the ballot box.

As a voter, how many times have you fallen into this trap of voting like it was a popularity contest in grade school – congratulating yourself for picking the “winner” but regretting it later? (More than 30 years ago, in my middle school, the front-runner for student body president said, “An election speech is like a skirt: It should be short enough to draw your interest but long enough to cover the subject.” Argh! He won, though.)

Let’s look at real-world political races. In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore for the U.S. presidency. Weird, huh, considering Bush is on the outs and Gore’s name has resurfaced as a Democratic candidate for 2008.

Democrats and conspiracy theorists (many of them live here) blame the Bush-Gore outcome on the Florida election results. It was a close race, that’s for sure. Or as Agent Maxwell Smart would put it: “It’s the old butterfly ballot-in-the voter precinct trick!”

But if you recall, there was more: Gore was “painfully boring and stiff,” as one CNN correspondent suggested – or at least a lot of people thought so.

Bush, on the other hand, was one of the most popular governors in the nation and labeled a “compassionate conservative.” His father also provided name recognition.

“A genuine sense of humor was all that separated ‘W’ and Gore back in 2000,” a Washington Times columnist wrote.

Two years ago Bush was re-elected to a second term, running against John Kerry, “a liberal wiener,” “a Herman Munster,” and one “(who’s) got that Botox,” as the irreverent Internet video “This Land” by JibJab contended. Truth is, some voters saw it like that – absent more thoughtful analysis.

For those who don’t know, “This Land” featured a parody of Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land is Your Land,” sung by animated caricatures of Bush (labeled a “right wing nut job”) and Kerry (a “pinko Commie,” besides the other stuff). The animation was an instant hit for the 7-year-old political site, founded in California. More than 60 million people (a lot) saw the online singalong, according to Politics Online.

“It’s a very funny parody, but sadly, a very true reflection on U.S. politics,” one Web site critic wrote about the funny/mean political video.

Fast forward to the present and world events are different. (Kerry’s verbal gaffe about what it takes to get “stuck in Iraq” didn’t help his cause.)

The war in Iraq under Bush – critics call it a “quagmire” – has led to the first Democratic sweep in Congress in more than a decade. It also has led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

If you voted the Bush ticket previously, you may have done some soul searching in the voting booth this election. Charlie Brown’s surprisingly good showing against John Doolittle (R-Roseville) was a sign of that.

Let’s look at how our voting habits affect other local races. In our county many residents are disappointed with Kathleen Smith, the chief of our county Elections Office. Some are even quietly wondering whether to try to recall her.

They blame Smith’s handling of this month’s election – mistakes in the voter information pamphlets, changing polling places, as well as slowness in reporting final results. They also cite her performance in the June primary and previous elections.

Despite some dissatisfaction from the electorate, a majority of county voters elected Smith to a new term only five months ago.

Smith won despite being was labeled “arrogant and incompetent” by many people, not just our publisher. The incumbent edged out her opponent Greg Diaz by 1,000 votes or so.

Many residents contend Diaz lost because his “negatives” were worse: an out-of-towner with little election office experience (Smith harped on this). Some of them contend that Diaz’ ethnicity cost him votes – a swipe at our county’s lack of diversity. “Wonder bread,” as one resident put it.

On Friday I phoned Smith and asked her about the recall effort. “If somebody thinks they are qualified to run for this office, they are welcome to,” she said.

As to the other questions Smith added: “You can submit your questions in writing. Thank you, Jeff.” I expressed some surprise, in light of her status as a public official, but she explained this was her “policy.” Then later in the day, Smith sent me an email inviting our paper to a press conference on Tuesday. Go figure.

In the meantime, here’s a personal question: How did you vote in this race? And why? The choice was yours.

In this month’s election, what role, if any, did likeability play in the judge’s race pitting Tom Anderson against Ray Shine? Both candidates were well qualified and spent tens of thousands of dollars to get elected. I’ve met and talked with both men, like some of you. So has our staff.

Anderson is congenial; Shine (a fellow Cal alum) likes to press the flesh too, but he also can be more guarded – sometimes defensive. It’s just the way they are.

On the issues, Anderson is a public defender, who thinks rehabilitation is a good option. Shine took more of the traditional “law and order” approach. Why did you vote for either of these candidates? Issues or personalities?

Shine said he didn’t know why he lost. “I don’t have a comment,” he told me Friday. “Anything I would say would be speculation. Why do you think I lost?”

We’ll all be watching to see how Anderson performs as a judge. Our crime problems are significant and complex. (Before the election, Tom swung by my office for a quick introduction. “Aye it was good crack,” as my longtime Irish friend Marty would put it. Translated that means “we had a good visit”; in this county, the expression might be misunderstood).

Judging candidates on the issues, not just whether you like them or not, is increasingly important for the “Big Shebang” – the 2008 presidential race – and upcoming local elections. Too much is at stake.

The media also needs to do a better job of explaining the issues, not obsess with personalities. The popularity of TV and Internet video makes covering the issues more challenging because both mediums are visually oriented.

At least voters are showing more willingness to cross party lines. The “Republicans for Charlie Brown” signs in our neighborhood were one example. Hollywood loyalties aside, “pinko Commie” actress Sharon Stone told Jay Leno the other night that she voted for Republican Arnold, “girly man” remark and all.

Let’s face it: in politics, anybody can be a Monday morning quarterback. It’s much harder to see into the future, vote your conviction, and make a good decision.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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