Voting 2004: This time it’s personal

Times Staff Writer

How personal has this election gotten?

Put it this way: It followed Ted G. Jelen into his doctor’s office in Nevada last week.

It went to work with Lisa Kellogg, a San Gabriel Valley preschool teacher who found herself arguing with a parent in the thick of morning drop-off.

It tracked Karen Dalrymple, a Michigan software developer, into the garage where the mechanic servicing her red Ford Focus should have kept his opinions to himself.

In the Del Webb retirement community of Lincoln, near Sacramento, it prompted a man to storm out of the billiards room this month and down a hall where the Democratic Club had spilled out of its meeting quarters. (“He was just waving his pool stick and shouting, ‘I don’t have to listen to this crap! Take it inside!’ ” said Nancy Krause, a 67-year-old retired administrative assistant who was there.)


At the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in Los Angeles, it trailed 75 congregants into the Tuesday night Bible study. “One of the young ladies communicated she was a supporter of [President] Bush, and people started, well, not to boo exactly but you could hear grumbling and rumbling,” said Elder Ben Stephens, the church’s college and young adult pastor. The mood was sufficiently ticklish that he ended the session with 2 Chronicles, 7:14:

“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

As the clock winds down on the most polarized presidential race in a generation, the mood of the electorate is almost unbearably emotional -- and there’s nowhere to hide. Partisan politics, something normal people avoid in workaday human relations, appear to have gone to a place few have seen since the Vietnam War era, to the point that many confess they just want this election to be over.

The spinning and selling, they say, the doublespeak and dissembling, have managed not just to sway and confuse as political operatives intended, but to set neighbor on neighbor. (“Red states, blue states -- we’re a nation of gang colors,” one political scientist observed sadly last week.)

Anxiety, depression, anger -- demoralizing feelings that modern Americans have rarely, if ever, associated with choosing a leader -- have been reported even from friendly precincts, and yard-sign fights and bumper sticker defacements are just the beginning. Last week in Florida, a Democrat was arrested for allegedly attempting to drive his Cadillac into U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, the Republican in charge of the state’s 2000 recount, and a Bush-backing Marine recruit was charged with trying to stab his girlfriend in the neck with a screwdriver after she threatened to leave him and vote for John Kerry.

Creeping into daily life

Even more revealing are the unsensational tales that have emanated for months now from families, schoolyards, synagogues, book clubs and just about every other venue in which one decided voter runs up against another.


In Arlington, Va., a Republican woman who didn’t want her name used said her neighbor, a Democrat, needled her so incessantly about her pet, a French poodle, that the two have stopped speaking. In San Diego, a soft-spoken surfer -- who likewise wanted to remain anonymous -- got into a shouting match over the election with his mom at his 7-year-old son’s birthday party.

Others tell of pointed remarks in line at the drug store, of businesses they can’t bear to frequent, of children who come home crying that the other kids said their candidate was “evil.” The political has become personal this time, voters say, and the emotional toll -- and by this point emotional exhaustion -- has been preternaturally high.

Beverly Hills psychologist Karen Bierman says so many of her clients have brought the election up in therapy that she’s beginning to think of it as a mental health issue.

“I’ve been in practice for 22 years and have never had so many people coming in feeling so personally upset and offended and manipulated and angry,” she said. “They feel that there’s a kind of bullying going on that’s, well, offensive, and to be offended is a very bad feeling, you can’t let go of it. Usually when people are upset, it’s about things in their own personal lives.”

Kate Schmidt, a personal trainer in Eagle Rock, said she knows those feelings.

“I’m in a 12-step program and have been meeting with this group of women for six years, and I thought we knew each other,” said Schmidt. When she learned secondhand that one of the members was voting for Bush, she was stunned at the vehemence of her reaction.

“I’m 50 years old and I’ve never felt this way about a presidential election,” she said. “There’s not one single thing about Bush that’s good in my opinion, and for people not to see that is confusing to me.”

The Rev. John McClure, whose Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Costa Mesa is known for its antiabortion activism, feels the same confusion. He and his friends, he says, can’t stop wondering why the president isn’t being praised to the rafters.

“Some people are honestly shocked that Bush isn’t just lauded, in that he took the steps [after the 9/11 attacks] that at the time seemed so bold and necessary. What happened to all the affirmation?” McClure asked.

He said his church’s prayer meetings have been steeped in the urgent fear that if the president isn’t reelected, it will mean an end to the hope of turning back the law on abortion and holding the line against same-sex marriage.

“There’s a real anxiety,” he said, “in the sense that this might be the last chance of seeing any change.”

Taken to heart

In a recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, 90% of respondents said the stakes this time are higher than in previous elections, and 89% were afraid of what might happen were their candidate to lose. Another poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion found that the average voter is having some type of conversation about this election seven times a week.

Colorado State University political scientist Bill Chaloupka says there are many reasons for the intense interest and emotion, but one of the less-mentioned is the extent to which voters have come in the last two decades to take party affiliation personally.

In particular, he said, the realignment during the 1980s and 1990s of the Republican Party from a diverse coalition into a more unified conservative movement has turned partisanship into not just a political, but a deeply personal matter.

“If you’re a member of a coalition, you’re just in a coalition,” said Chaloupka. “But if you’re a member of a movement, that’s your identity.”

That intensity, he says, has in turn injected a moral tinge into partisanship; Americans increasingly view the opposing party not just as proponents of a different philosophy, but as true believers on a mission to usurp the culture and government.

Kevin Aratari, a 37-year-old television marketing executive and a moderate Republican in an industry that’s deeply Democratic, said this campaign has forced him to constantly remind colleagues that there’s more to him than his voting habits. Just last week, he said, he nearly lost a client when he reacted, after a long harangue, to what he felt was Bush-bashing.

“I didn’t say anything until she was pretty much blaming the fact that she hadn’t won the lottery on George Bush, and then I think I may have snickered out loud,” he said. “There was a deafening silence. Then it went downhill for about a half an hour until someone changed the subject. It’s completely unacceptable to say anything about someone because of their race or religion, but it’s become perfectly acceptable to flat-out discriminate against them because their politics, as if your political affiliation were your entire being.”

Add to that the fact that this is the first presidential election since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and a fragmented, niche-marketed media that encourage both sides to limit themselves only to the news they agree with, and the upshot is a recipe for getting -- and staying -- very angry.

Jelen, for example, says he’s never experienced such a personally upsetting election -- and he studies elections for a living.

A soft-spoken political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he says he’s felt his hackles rise at least three times just in the last few months.

There was the academic conference where his blood boiled as a colleague defended the idea of making voters produce extra identification at polling places. Then there were the students who, after pestering him for weeks about whether he backed Bush or Kerry, complained to his department chair when they finally got their answer.

Most unsettling, though, were the words with his doctor, whom he likes, in the middle of a recent checkup.

“I was off-campus and wearing a Kerry button, and he had signs up for a medical malpractice initiative in his office,” said Jelen. “He wanted to know how I could wear that thing on my lapel, and I said something to the effect that I preferred to support the candidate who wasn’t a war criminal, and -- well, just say that the conversation was pointed and brief.”

Divisive arguments

In La Canada, preschool teacher Kellogg said she realized, even as she was speaking, that it was “totally inappropriate” to get into a political discussion with a parent. But she couldn’t keep a straight face when the woman announced to a crowd that she planned to vote against a state initiative that would fund stem cell research.

“She said, ‘You don’t agree?’ ” said Kellogg, whose 10-year-old son has juvenile diabetes, an affliction that the measure’s proponents say might be cured with the help of such funding. “And I said, ‘You’d vote for it in a minute if your daughter had to go through one day of what my son has to go through.’ ” Later, she said, the woman called her at home and both apologized.

In Michigan, Dalrymple said she bristled when her auto mechanic cornered her on the night of the third presidential debate with a litany of reasons why she should vote for Bush rather than Kerry, a lobbying effort that soon blossomed into an argument.

“By the time I had fresh oil, he’d realized that he might be losing a customer and started to backpedal,” she said, adding that she isn’t sure whether she’ll go back. “I’ve got 3,000 miles until I have to decide.”