I went to vote today. And came away with a civics lesson and a trip down presidential election’s memory lane. And the red and white sticker.
This morning on another sunny, early November-defying Election Day — as the electorate trickled into my polling location, the Brookside School in Brighton — I asked whoever was willing (almost everyone was) one two-part question. Over your whole life, which Presidential election mattered the most to you? In what election did you care the most about the outcome?
As Brightonians, my survey group was older, more affluent and better educated than average. Only one woman was African-American, who told me about racial taunts she heard in ’08 when she voted at the Edgewood Free Methodist Church. Overall, more tilted Democratic than Republican. And, an off year election seemed to bring out the political junkies. The best part of this demographic was that people wanted to talk.
Naturally — but not always — the older the respondent, the further back in time was their chosen election. And, people tended to care most about an election in which their side won, with 1972 the biggest exception.
For one senior voter, it was 1952, Eisenhower v. Stevenson, because he felt Ike would be the stronger leader as the Cold War was heating up. For another woman — a self-described “Ike Girl” — it was 1956, again Eisenhower v. Stevenson.
1960, Kennedy v. Nixon, drew a slew of answers. 55 years later, the passion for Kennedy came back in their eyes. His dynamism, his charisma, and for some of the reminiscing ladies, his handsomeness. And, for one, that he wasn’t Nixon.
One woman who was not particularly a political junkie said Johnson v. Goldwater in 1964. Because she was young and it was her first election and you never forget your first.
The next year cited was Nixon v. McGovern in 1972, four times — all on the losing side. 1972 was seared into their memory. Its mere mention brought one woman back to her anti war protest days. And Election night in the Rochester Democratic Headquarters when she was heartbroken even though she knew McGovern was destined to lose. For another man — who said in his many elections he has yet to regret his choice — 1972 was big. Very big.
’76 was skipped.
1980 mattered most to them for five people. The Reaganites looked still proud of their man who they believed changed history — culminating in the end of the Cold War soon after his second term — in a way they thought Carter never would have.
’84 and ’88 were skipped.
I was surprised that four or five people were most engaged and cared about the outcome in 1992, Clinton v. Bush. Interestingly, Gulf War I was not mentioned. Repeatedly, Clinton represented the “time for a change” the country needed after 12 years with one party in office. One man voted for “a weird third party candidate, Harry Browne.”
1996 was skipped.
2000 riveted three people, all for Gore. For them, it became less about Gore than the recount ordeal. One man mumbled the old battle cry: the Supreme Court stole the election.
2008, Obama v. McCain, was invoked the most times, about a dozen (about 10 Obama to 2 McCain). I heard echoes of both Kennedy and Reagan as people remembered how much they dearly wanted America to make history — by electing an African-American they felt could change history. One woman — normally up 5:30a.m. as a school teacher — pulled an all-nighter waiting for the results from Hawaii. It was that election where Brenda D. Lee, the African-American woman, heard someone in a passing car on Edgewood shout–not directed at her who they didn’t see–I can’t believe you people are lined up to vote for a N*. See At a seat from the Presidents table two years later/
2012 mattered the most to three people. One because Obama’s reelection was what mattered most. The other two deeply had cared that Obama not be reelected.
For me it was 2004. I thought the invasion of Iraq was wrongheaded and wanted the world to know the American people realized it. But the American people decided that since Bush rolled the dice on Iraq — with the dice then still spinning on the craps table — it was his to finish.
As a Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History, for me it was a good day. No, in the aggregate, the results were not surprising. My guess is that in a larger survey the tally would be similar. But it was exciting to see history come alive — as far away from a textbook as you can get. And I liked my neighbors better. As they retold the story of their chosen election, I sensed they measured their words. Respectful of those — even if 60 years ago — who had voted against them.
Fitting for Election Day in America.
(update upcoming from Chuck, see More on the Austrian Cannon Monument including from Rachel Barnhart/ )