The Shimmer Floor Wax Election
Waaaay back in 1976, NBC’s Saturday Night (now known as Saturday Night Live) ran one of their spoof advertisements, for Shimmer Non-Dairy Floor Wax. In it, a husband (Dan Aykroyd) and wife (Gilda Radner) are arguing over whether Shimmer is a floor wax or a dessert topping. Chevy Chase enters the kitchen as the spokesman to clarify that Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping.
In similar fashion, Democrats and Republicans are arguing over whether this year’s Presidential election is a referendum on the President, or a choice between two candidates.
I’ve got news for you: this election is a referendum on the President and a choice between the two candidates.
Certainly any election with an incumbent has an element of referendum to it. In essence, a referendum on an incumbent is like firing an employee. If your employee isn’t doing the job you want, you’re entitled to fire that employee. Elected officials are no different. In fact, this is the whole point of having regular elections.
But let’s look at how it works in the world of employment. If I have an employee who isn’t doing the job, I have literally billions of alternate choices. True, the vast majority get eliminated right away, but in the end I will typically interview dozens of potential candidates, after going through hundreds of résumés. And, if I have gone through all of them and none convince me that they are an improvement over the status quo, I can immediately go back and start over.
With a Presidential election, our hands are tied quite a bit more. Realistically, we are rarely presented with more than two choices, since third parties are all but excluded from the process. And so we are left with two people, and one chance every quadrennium, to replace the incumbent. And that means that we can’t have a referendum exclusive of also having a…
When presented with two options, one which we currently have but don’t like a lot, is it better to switch or not? That, of course, depends on what the other option is. I’m going to dip my toe here in Godwin territory, but just to prove a point. Imagine for a moment that the Republican Party nominated Adolph Hitler as their candidate of choice. Would we truly be better off with him than with Barack Obama? (I’m sure that there are a few who would say yes, but very few.) We simply can’t avoid considering that the replacement may be worse than the status quo.
Is Mitt Romney an improvement over Barack Obama? Certainly to those who believe that the government that does the best does the least. And to those who never found a tax that they like. And to those who consider Fox News to be fair and balanced. In other words, the Republican base.
But is he an improvement to people who aren’t already predisposed to hate Obama? The answer to that question is far less clear.
For Republicans, it needs to be a referendum, because the choice doesn’t look appealing to moderate, undecided voters. Romney comes across as stiff, stilted, and artificial. In contrast, Obama comes across as comfortable, easygoing, and natural. Romney is light on policy specifics and heavy on platitudes, while Obama has long been clear on his policy specifics. That doesn’t make the Romney choice look particularly good to moderates.
For Democrats, it needs to be a choice, because Obama’s record doesn’t look appealing to moderate, undecided voters. Obama promised a lot, but the most compelling promise he made was to end the ugly partisanship in Washington. It was a nice promise, and one that made him sound like a savior (much of the reason why Republicans derided his “celebrity” persona). But it was one on which he didn’t deliver. Perhaps nobody could have, but nobody else made that promise. Another key promise he made was to fix the economy. And, yes, it’s better than it was three years ago. But it’s nowhere near as good as the picture painted by his campaign rhetoric four years ago. Perhaps nobody could have brought about that level of recovery, but Obama is the one who made that promise. Those were the two most compelling promises, and neither of them lived up to the rhetoric. That doesn’t make the Obama record look particularly good to moderates.
This is why both candidates have focused more attention on getting the base to the polls, and less on drawing the moderates. Those moderate voters will be looking at the November election as Shimmer Floor Wax. They will consider both the referendum and the choice elements. Tastes terrific, and just look at that shine! It’s unlikely that either will be more compelling than the other to them in the end, and since neither one pulls a voter toward a candidate, the combined force is likely to do little more than make them stay at home.
- Obama and Romney: Choice or referendum? (content.usatoday.com)
- Election is Now a Referendum on Romney, not Obama (ConservativeActionAlerts.com)
- Walker Knocks “Referendum” (washingtonmonthly.com)
- John Boehner: I Can’t Make You Love Romney, Because Most Of America Won’t (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Is it just the economy? Other issues may play role (news.yahoo.com)