November 1, 2018

The Voter’s Conundrum

The upcoming midterm elections are significant. While President Trump is not on the November ballot, citizens across the country will be casting their votes for congressional representatives who will either aid or impede the administration’s agenda. In large part, the success of President Trump’s next two years will depend on the political makeup of the House and Senate in the 116th United States Congress.

Conventional wisdom indicates that the Republican Party will falter come November 6. Historically, the president’s party loses congressional seats in the midterm election. Since 1938, the midpoint of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unprecedented third term in office, the party of the president in power has lost seats in the Senate 75 percent of the time and the House 90 percent of the time [15 and 18 out of 20 midterm elections, respectively].

Sometimes, midterm elections are a repudiation of performance as congressional turnover tends to mirror the president’s job approval ratings; but, more often, they are simply a political manifestation of Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Nothing motivates people to go to the polls like an adversary in the White House.

Will the trend continue this election cycle? Probably, but I think the magnitude of the “blue wave” will depend on the turnout in many rural districts. It is no secret that rural America helped propel Trump to the presidency in 2016. In counties smaller than 20,000 people, voters went for Trump over Clinton by a margin of more than two to one. In fact, counties all the way up to one million residents favored Trump over Clinton.

However, while President Trump’s policies have largely favored the business communities, his position on several key agricultural issues, such as international trade and immigration, may be eroding his support in rural and farming communities, causing many Western Growers members to face what I call the “Voter’s Conundrum.”

Regardless of which side of the aisle you find yourself, there may be moments where you find it difficult to support your party; or there may be particular races where you identify more closely with the candidate of the opposite party [or, as may be more often the case, the candidate of your own party is a verifiable fool]. The crux of the Voter’s Conundrum is this: In these situations, do you vote for your party or for the candidate, regardless of party?

Many times in my life, I have heard the seemingly sage political advice: “Vote for the person, not the party.” With more than four in 10 voters identifying themselves as independents in the most recent Gallup Poll, it appears that many Americans have bought into this nonpartisan ballot-casting philosophy. Without turning this column into a partisan voting guide, let’s examine the wisdom of this approach to executing our primary civic duty.

For a moment, imagine a political system where there are no parties, only candidates, each with their own political philosophies and positions on the issues. How would your voting decisions be based in this alternate universe? Without the influence of party designations, your choice would more than likely be determined by individual merit; undoubtedly, you would be more like to consider a candidate who may not align with all of your core values, but in your estimation is intelligent, measured and capable. On the surface, this would appear to be the preferable method for choosing our local, state and national representatives. Imagine if these types of elected officials ran our country?!

Now travel back to the reality you currently live in, the one with sharply-divided political parties and equally-divergent agendas. Let’s assume this otherwise qualified individual has been elected, with the help of your ballot, but they happen to represent the party opposite of your own. How might they cast their votes on monumental pieces of legislation, bills intended to chart the fiscal and social course of this country for decades to come?

Consider this statistic: Party unity voting has increased from around 60 percent in the 1970s to 90 percent today. In other words, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate nearly always vote along party lines. Case in point, zero Democrats in either chamber voted for last year’s landmark tax reform bill, with only a handful of Republicans breaking ranks [mainly due to concerns over the increase in the federal debt].

This fact underscores the significance of party majorities in Congress, and hints at the fate of President Trump’s agenda should the Democrats retake control of the House or Senate in 2019. With nearly six dozen highly competitive seats in the House and nine toss up elections in the Senate [as of the writing of this column], every vote will count, perhaps none more than those in rural America.

So, as you cast your ballot, will you vote for the person or the party?