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The Year of Mood-Swing Votes

By Steven Stark

The nation's political mood is shifting dramatically, and the campaign press has yet to notice the change. Simply put, mass alienation with politics as usual -- a morphed incarnation of Perotism -- is returning in force. This has the potential to reshape significantly the contours of Campaign 2008, and is the reason that John McCain and the relatively unknown Mike Huckabee are being pushed into major contention. So why has this potentially transforming development been ignored?

Campaign reporters tend to track only candidates, activists, and pundits, all of whom think the two-party politics-as-usual system works. Often, that sensibility matches the public mood, as it did in 2006: if you don't like the Republicans, the Democrats will do.

But that's not the dynamic any longer. President Bush's approval ratings are near historic lows -- 24 percent in the latest Reuters/Zogby poll. Yet the ratings for the Democrat-controlled Congress are even lower -- an astonishing 11 percent. Away from the buzz of the campaign, many voters aren't keen on any politician, or at least any of the usual suspects. Even Stephen Colbert drew 13 percent in a recent Rasmussen poll proposing a three-way race with Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani.

We've been here before, of course. In 1976, despite the trauma of Watergate and the Vietnam War, reporters and the campaign establishments assumed the campaign would be par for the course. We had the populist candidate (Fred Harris), the liberal (Mo Udall), even a candidate who ran as an insider (Birch Bayh), and so on.

The voters threw them overboard, though, and almost unseated incumbent president Gerald Ford in the primaries with a conservative renegade named Ronald Reagan. Eventually, they opted for the one candidate -- Jimmy Carter -- whose calling card was that he was so far removed from the mess in Washington that he just might be able to clean it up.

In 1992, another year of alienation, H. Ross Perot bore more than a passing resemblance to Carter. He didn't sound like a typical politician, often speaking, as Carter had, like an engineer and businessman. Both Perot and Carter were graduates of the Naval Academy, which helped give them similar philosophies of management, and they both promised non-ideological, non-political solutions that would break government gridlock. They ran, really, as radical centrists.

World turned upside down

The mood this year increasingly resembles those of '76 and '92. Still, few candidates have adjusted their campaign strategies. The three main Democratic contenders are running as if it were 2006, parlaying the "sweep the bums out" platform that worked then with conventional Democratic political solutions to our problems. Giuliani, Thompson, and Romney may have differing approaches, but they still come across as traditional politicians.

Three of this year's candidates, however, have assumed innovative postures, and they may be the ones to watch. Ron Paul -- whose brand of libertarianism isn't that different from aspects of Perotism (Paul and Perot are both from Texas) -- is not going to win the presidency. But he's already surprised everyone with the depth of his support and fundraising.

More important, in this new atmosphere, Huckabee and McCain, outsider candidates who were once written off, could actually win their party's nomination and the presidency. Huckabee is the Jimmy Carter of 2008: an unknown, small-state, Southern governor with a religious background. (People often forget that it was Carter who first courted evangelicals; his autobiography, Why Not the Best?, was released by a religious publisher.) Like Carter, Huckabee doesn't bill himself as a conventional politician (he even plays in a rock band!), and propounds common-sense, often nonpartisan, solutions. And, like Carter, he has the potential to use the Iowa caucus as a launching pad to national recognition.

Then there¹s McCain. The Arizona senator ran in 2000 as a kind of "saner Perot," appealing to a similar strain of independent voters. As were his two outsider predecessors, McCain is a graduate of the Naval Academy and promises to bring the same kind of apolitical-management approach to government.

But 2000 was the wrong time for a rebirth of Perotism. For a while, it looked as if this year would be, too. The winds are shifting, though, and the maverick McCain may well be standing in the right place at the right time.

Both Huckabee and McCain face formidable obstacles. If they are to win, they'll have to do it without much money. And their biggest problem is likely to be that the types of voters who are increasingly alienated from politics as usual don't tend to vote in primaries. Instead, primaries are often controlled by increasingly smaller numbers of activist voters, whose predilections differ markedly from the more alienated electorate at-large.

Still, what's clear is that a large part of the political community may be misreading the tenor of the times. Many students of American history know that, when the British surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown, the band struck up "The World Turned Upside Down." Next year, when real voters actually join the process, that may be the theme song of Campaign 2008.

Boston Phoenix

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