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Mark Olmsted Headshot

Biography of an American Voter

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As a life-long liberal who'd rather have his hand chopped off than vote for a conservative, I found the behavior of Virginia and Massachusetts voters in '08 and '09 a little mind-boggling. It's virtually certain that the some of the same people voted for both Obama and Scott Brown, and in Virginia, Obama and McDonnell, (not to mention Cucinelli.) As I thought historically about this electoral ping-pong, I started to realize there is probably a substantial pool of older voters who have voted for the winner in every single Presidential election since 1960. Given the huge ideological differences involved, I decided to imagine how this might be.

Clearly, for every voter who votes on the grounds of policy positions of the candidates, as I do, there is one who votes much more emotionally, based on mostly subjective reasoning. This means constructing a psychological biography with plenty of realistic details to represent the full range of political and social pressures on American voters over the past 5 decades.

My protagonist is a white male named Ed, who grew up in a small town in Missouri, the eldest son of three children. He is drafted in 1957, the integrated military exposing him to African-Americans for the first time. Ed's initial presidential vote is in 1960, when he votes for Kennedy, taken by his youth and energy. He goes to college on the GI Bill, but leaves halfway through when his father has a stroke. When his Dad dies, Ed takes over the family milk-distributing business, working long hours there for the next two decades.

Ed votes for Johnson in 1964 because he personally believes in civil rights and the promise of the Great Society programs. America is a rich country in which, he thinks, there should be no poverty. He is unsure about what to think about U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but he certainly considers himself an anti-Communist.

Ed marries Elaine, who he met in college. She finishes her degree -- he intends to go back to get one, but never does. They have three children in succession, two girls and a boy. Elaine stays home to take care of them while they are toddlers.

In 1966, Ed's younger brother is killed in Vietnam. This hardens Ed's sense of patriotism, while turning Elaine against the war. But Ed is shaken by all the assassinations and rioting of 1968. Nixon's law and order message, and "secret plan to end the war," draws his vote.

In 1972, Ed is swayed by Nixon campaign ads implying McGovern will eviscerate the military. He argues a lot with Elaine, who has started teaching at the local high school. Ed points out that Nixon has withdrawn most American troops from Vietnam, and votes for his re-election in 1972.

Watergate is a shock to Ed. The America of his high school civics lessons seems a distant memory. In 1976, he votes for Carter as a Washington outsider. Now that the Vietnam War is over, Elaine argues that defense spending should go down, but Ed believes she's naïve about the continued Soviet threat. Their political differences seem to go hand in hand with difficulties in their marriage. Ed's never really adapted to the new power balance between them after Elaine went to work.

In 1979, like most Americans, Ed can't even find Iran on a map. All he knows is that Reagan promises to get the hostages back. He doesn't like Carter's "malaise" talk even though he can't argue with its logic. His vote for Reagan in 1980 represents a desire for Reagan's optimistic "morning in America" message to be true. Meanwhile, Elaine files for divorce.

Ed sells the business to split the proceeds with Elaine. He decides to start anew and move to Florida.. There he buys a gas station. The kids visit on summers and holidays. He marries one of his cashiers, Carla, a Cuban widow who's got two kids of her own and is very Republican. As times get better, Ed votes for Reagan again in 1984. He starts to wonder if supply-side economics and low taxes might be just the thing after all. He buys two more gas stations and votes for George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Ed makes good money, but between child support, tuition for his eldest son in college and the uncovered medical expenses of Carla's youngest, who has juvenile diabetes, it all goes very fast. Still, he notices the "fiscally responsible" Republicans have run up some serious debt, and he doesn't like Bush's personality. He decides to give the affable Clinton a chance in 1992.

By the mid-nineties, Ed doesn't see why Clinton shouldn't be re-elected. He now has three kids in college, but his ex-wife has remarried and shares the burden. Her new husband is a nice guy, and he has a grown gay son who is very likable. Ed finds himself getting more open-minded on social issues. He is disappointed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal but thinks the Republicans are overreacting. On the other hand, Carla has become a born-again Christian and is very anti-Clinton.

Ed is torn in 2000. He likes Gore, but as a gas station owner, tends to feel demonized by environmentalism. Bush is an oil and gas man, and gets Ed's vote, but just barely.

Ed's eldest stepson joins the military after 9/11, and is sent to Iraq in 2003. Despite his misgivings about Bush, Ed feels obliged to vote for the Commander-in-Chief in 2004. He is also making good money in the stock market, and his daughter has moved to Florida and is doing very well as a realtor. Everybody seems to be making money; but Ed certainly can't ignore ballooning deficits and how out of his depth Bush clearly is.

The economic meltdown of 2008 costs Ed over $100,000 in the stock market, and financially wipes out his daughter, who owns several foreclosed properties. During the campaign, Ed, who used to admire John McCain for his bipartisanship, is dismayed by his turn to the right. He thinks Sarah Palin is an airhead -- but Carla loves her.

Politics are seriously straining the family. Ed's other daughter won't even visit anymore because Carla watches Fox News. Ed votes for Obama in 2008 and refuses to discuss it with Carla. Sometimes he secretly watches MSNBC.

In 2009, hope turns to anger. Ed must sell two of his four gas stations at a loss and has had to drop health insurance for the employees he still has. Ed supports Obama's health care reform, but is irritated by the slow process getting there. His eldest stepson comes back from two tours of duty in Iraq, can't find a job and smokes pot all day. When his son's girlfriend asks for Ed's help getting an abortion, Ed gives her money to do it. Carla threatens to divorce him.

At 71, Ed misses the days when politics didn't seem so personal. He wants to golf and enjoy his grandchildren, but he can't even relax. In 2010, he thinks he'll stay home from the polls, and will wait to see how well Obama does before he decides who to vote for in 2012. He does tell Carla if she goes to a tea party rally he'll be the one divorcing her, as he's deeply alienated by the racist imagery of the posters he's seen in the demonstrations. The only thing he and is wife seem to agree on politically these days is how much they hate the banks and Wall Street.

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When I started this I thought it would be hard to make it believable that someone could vote for the winner in every election of the past 50 years. After writing it, it doesn't seem so hard to imagine at all.

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