Back in the 90s, a Democratic party operative named Paul Begala popularized the aphorism that “politics is show business for ugly people.” To his credit, he never claimed any pride of authorship: “I might have heard it in a bar.”
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There's no clearer demonstration of the truth of it than America's quadrennial party conventions, huge professional-wrestling affairs during which all the dialogue is shouted, the good guys cheered, the bad guys booed, and the contest outcomes long since determined.
This year, Republicans will be in Cleveland and Democrats in Philadelphia. The locations are really irrelevant. Both convention sites will be cordoned off; protesters and dissenters will be shuffled into “First Amendment Zones” far from the action, and nothing will be permitted to disturb the kayfabe between balloon drops.
Conventions, like “appealing to the base” and “pivoting to the General,” are rituals and talismans of American elections. Candidates drag into them after bruising primary seasons and then “bounce” out with a slight bump in the polls.
The size and spread of the bump becomes the subject of breathless analysis for the next several days. Its meaning is scrutinized, then forgotten.
This year, something a little unusual happened: an apparently swift, pre-convention reversal of trends in several key states. Before July 13, Hillary Clinton seemed to be consolidating a solid, durable lead in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and a few others.
Donald Trump, undisciplined and unable (or unwilling) to control his penchant for outrageous pronouncements, was trending downward.
The July 13 Quinnipiac poll, which showed Trump making solid gains and even taking slight leads (though within the margins of error) in Pennsylvania and Florida, put us back in familiar territory. The Trump camp crowed. The Clinton side said that polls at this point don't mean anything. Certainly not one single poll after a week of bad news.
While these dismissals were opportunistic, they had a point. Clinton had a very bad—and very public—week of news.
Polls are momentary pictures of sentiment, and what we see through the noise is really the base reality of national elections: that around forty percent of voters are committed to one or other of the two major parties regardless of any external circumstance. The remainder are mostly either uninterested, uncommitted, or uninformed and will vacillate for the next several months.
Yet Clinton's momentary appearance of weakness slightly reinvigorated the more dedicated supporters of her opponent in the primary, Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that he publicly endorsed her that same week. Among other things, Sanders had always polled better against Trump than Clinton in hypothetical contests.
I supported Sanders, though I was never a devotee, because I saw him as marginally preferable to Clinton on matters of economics, where he embraced what would in most other Western countries count as modest center-leftism, and because he very mildly broke with the consensus on Israel by insisting that Palestinians might have some rights as a people.
But I always assumed he would lose (he did better than I expected), and I was sure he would endorse the Democratic nominee.
The voices of the #BernieorBust brigade have been over-amplified in social media. In the 2008 campaigns, there was an even larger number of Clinton supporters who said they would never vote for Obama, and we all know how that turned out.
But these voices, along with the inability of Clinton to visibly pull away from Trump no matter his errors, will make for a volatile few weeks leading into the Convention spectacles.
I live in Pennsylvania, a state that hasn't voted for a Republican President since George H.W. Bush. I find it difficult to believe that Trump stands a chance, and yet you need only listen to someone like Lou Mavrakis, the mayor of Monessen, a troubled former steel town where Trump recently spoke, to understand why many outside of Pittsburgh's big cities might tell pollsters they're considering Trump.
“Do I think Mr. Trump is going to bring back the steel industry? Absolutely not,” Mavrakis said in a recent interview, where he was also at pains to say that he was only “thinking” of voting for Trump. But neither Obama nor Clinton has spent much time in American's post-industrial Rust Belt, and its inhabitants are eager to send a message of discontent.
Unlike Mr. Mavrakis, I'm not thinking about voting for Trump. I'm gay, a Jew, a city boy now (though I did grow up in rural Pennsylvanian coal country).
A candidate who will openly and, let's be honest, knowingly bruit the ugliest tropes and images of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, is the enemy. Calls for religious tests for Muslims by Trump and his supporters should terrify Jews. We have been there before.
Still, I admit to having a very difficult time imaging how I would ever vote for Clinton.
The sideline spectacle of email scandals and Benghazi bore me, but her avowedly militaristic foreign policy, her disastrous advocacy of war in Libya, her evident closeness to the same financial firms that nearly destroyed the world economy in 2007-2008 and never reformed, and her supporters undermining attempts by Cornel West and others to make the Democratic Party Platform acknowledge the Palestinian people disturb me deeply.
I know I am not alone in this. I suspect that many other left-leaning Jews, anti-interventionists, Black Lives Matter activists, and others in the state and in the country will do as I intend to: wait to see how very close it is on election day before deciding to vote for a third party, to simply abstain, or, only if things look bad, to pray for forgiveness and choose the devil we know.
Jacob Bacharach www.jacobbacharach.com is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of the novel The Bend of the World. Follow him on Twitter: @jakebackpack