The Ward Heeler Election

WEB Obama Romney for PA poll
Getty Images

A dozen years ago, during the fateful presidential election of 2000, I worked as a precinct captain for my local ward organization. I quickly learned that my job wasn’t to persuade people how to vote. That was up to the candidates. My job was to identify people who were going to vote for the Democratic Party, and make sure they got to the polls on Election Day, even if I had to drive them myself. I wasn’t a politician. I was a ward heeler. I didn’t sell the product. I got people into the store.

Fortunately, my inner-city precinct was overwhelmingly populated with Democrats. On Election Day, it cast 362 votes for Al Gore, 28 votes for George W. Bush, and 10 voted for Ralph Nader.

The reason this year’s presidential election is so negative, so devoid of intellectual substance, is that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are campaigning as ward heelers, not politicians. They both realize they’re dealing with a polarized electorate, ossified in its preferences, and that nothing they say is going to make a Republican vote for a Democrat, or vice versa. So their strategy is to frighten their own voters to the polls.

On Monday, Obama held his first press conference in five weeks, specifically to condemn Missouri Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s claim that women can’t become pregnant as a result of rape.

“Rape is rape,” Obama said. “And the idea that we should be parsing and qualifying and slicing what types of rape we are talking about doesn’t make sense to the American people and certainly doesn’t make sense to me. So what I think these comments do underscore is why we shouldn’t have a bunch of politicians, a majority of whom are men, making health care decisions on behalf of women.”

Obama wasn’t just attacking Akin. He was trying to send a message to women that Republicans want to take away their reproductive rights. In the next two-and-a-half months, the Democrats will try to turn Todd Akin into Romney’s running mate.

Meanwhile, Romney is trying to frighten senior citizens -- an important Republican voting bloc -- with an ad claiming Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act will result in a $716 billion “raid” on Medicare. During a campaign speech in Pennsylvania -- a swing state with a large proportion of old folks -- Romney’s actual running mate, Paul Ryan, claimed that ObamaCare would steal money from Medicare.

"Nearly one out of six hospitals and nursing homes are going to go out of business, or just stop taking Medicare patients, because you know why? President Obama treated Medicare like a piggy bank to fund ObamaCare, and his campaign calls that an ‘achievement,’” Ryan said.

Would Romney actually ban abortion? Of course not. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush didn’t even try to do it, so why would he? Would Obama actually shut ailing seniors out of nursing homes and hospitals? No. But this campaign isn’t about truth. It’s about fear.

Romney is attacking Obama for behaving like a Chicago politician. As someone who’s been on the front lines of Chicago politics, I can tell you they’re both behaving that way. Welcome to the ward heeler election.

 This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.

Contact Us