Teaching political science, writing for The Nation and hosting a political TV show have distorted my perception of the importance of electoral politics to ordinary Americans. People in my world pore over the latest polls and are breathless with anticipation nearly every Tuesday. But for most Americans, politics is background noise. On a cool, rainy Monday in April, I spent the afternoon at the Village Inn diner in Virginia Beach talking with the locals who frequent this retro community institution, which serves breakfast all day and bakes its pies fresh every morning.
Virginia will be critically important in 2012. Democrats will focus on black voters in Richmond, liberals in the DC suburbs and the growing Latino vote throughout the state. Republicans will press in rural areas, small towns along the North Carolina border and conservative areas on the western edge of the state. Both parties are likely to flood Virginia Beach, Hampton and Norfolk—a densely populated purple region, rich in swing voters and conveniently located a day trip away from the Beltway. I figured if there was anywhere to find politically attuned Americans, it would be in a place that will shortly become the center of the electoral universe. During my hours at the Village Inn, I encountered people with widely varying levels of political knowledge and sharply divergent points of view.
A small-business owner in his 40s bemoaned the idea that Americans would be forced to “choose between food and jail” if the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act is allowed to stand. “How can the government force us to buy insurance if we can’t afford it?” This man was sufficiently informed to know that healthcare reform is under Supreme Court review, but he clearly didn’t understand the consequences associated with the individual mandate. Violating the mandate will carry a small fine, not prison time.
I spoke with a military mom whose son had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. This spunky, 50-something white woman explained that she was a Republican but voted for President Obama in 2008. “Not this time, though,” she told me forcefully. “I am sick of him putting other countries before America.” She said that she learned a lot from Glenn Beck during the past four years, and she said she was disgusted by the president’s lies. She did not question his citizenship, just his honesty.
A few feet away, a large, multiracial, intergenerational group pushed together several tables to accommodate their dinner plates and their notebooks. They were part of the local Virginia Beach Democratic Committee and were meeting to discuss their strategies to help re-elect the president. They told me confidently that the Tidewater area in Virginia would help Obama once again turn Virginia blue in 2012. Each was an ardent Obama supporter, and several asserted that he would someday be understood as America’s best and most effective president.
A pair of undecided voters explained their opposition to both candidates in conscientious and accurate detail. How could they be expected to support the president when his military base closings were having a negative economic impact in their communities? Why would they trust Mitt Romney to look out for the interests of working families when his joke about a $10,000 bet made him seem so out of touch with their lives? In their view, neither candidate seemed to really get it.