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Disgusted voters, the silent majority

Untold millions of Americans are not angry so much as frustrated, anxious and resigned that the midterm election won't change their stressed-out, stretched-thin lives.

October 14, 2010|By Faye Fiore and Mark Z. Barabak

Ann Quinn is in her red camp chair watching her 10-year-old son at Friday afternoon soccer practice. There's a bin of blue and gold hats in the back of her SUV and a big flag. When she isn't working full time at the local Navy base, she is cubmaster for her son's pack and a classroom volunteer at his school.

If all that isn't enough, there is an election coming up next month and her husband, John, comes home most nights all spun up about what a lousy job President Obama and the Democrats are doing. She likes Obama and the Democrats. But she's tired from juggling work, parenting and cooking, and voting in these dispiriting times seems like just one more chore.

Quinn feels like she's stuck at a ping-pong match. Wasn't it only yesterday the Democrats were promising to shake things up in Washington? Now it's the Republicans, and it looks like control of the House and maybe the Senate is about to change hands.

When she looks at Washington, this is what she sees: Nobody compromises. Nobody watches out for people like her, people too busy working, selling Cub Scout popcorn and pulling coupons off the Internet to go around yelling about which party did what to ruin America.

"I try to be informed, but there's no one out there I love. They can throw stones at the other guy, and as long as they win, they are happy. Nobody wants to govern," she says, one eye on Patrick running around the field. "It's just been so disappointing."

For all the sound and fury of the "tea party" movement, the chorus of marchers descending on the Capitol and the nightly racket on cable TV, there are untold millions of Americans who are not angry so much as frustrated, anxious and resigned that, whatever happens Nov. 2, little the politicians say or do will change their stressed-out, stretched-thin lives.

Call them, in the old phrase, the silent majority: voters like Ann Quinn, disgusted with Washington, nervous about the future, but so busy getting by day-to-day that the election is almost an afterthought.

A survey published last month in Newsweek found that self-described angry voters — the ones grabbing all the attention — make up about 23% of the electorate. Most of them are Republicans.

As for the rest, many of them are not terribly partisan, though they may lean toward one party over the other. Immigration, earmarks, same-sex marriage, those things that exercise activists, are of little interest. Mainly what they want is for lawmakers to stop bickering and address the problems they deal with on a daily basis, "putting food on the table, gas in their car and … getting the kids through college," said Democratic pollster Margie Omero.

"They feel they're living on another planet in D.C.," said Alex Bratty, a Republican pollster who partnered with Omero on a series of focus groups with women around the country they dubbed "Walmart Moms" to capture their straitened circumstances. "The way they see it is a lot of partisanship, not getting anything done. They ask, 'Why can't they compromise?' "

The Quinns live in Middletown, a pretty suburb of broad lawns and quiet cul-de-sacs just over the South Bridge from Harrisburg. Ann, 55, grew up here in the shadow of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in a houseful of Democrats. John, 56, grew up here too, in a houseful of Republicans.

In 15 years of marriage they have never agreed on anything political. When she put a John Kerry sign on the lawn in 2004, he ran out and got a George W. Bush sign to plant right next to it. But when it comes to the important things — Patrick, improvements to their two-story Dutch colonial house, which car to buy — they put their differences aside and did what needed to be done. If they can figure out how to make it work, why can't Washington?

"Nobody seems to be capable of saying what we should do to solve the country's problems," Ann says. "I feel they have all been bought off. Who is the lobbyist for the American people?"

The election is less than three weeks away and John can't wait to vote. That's why Democrats are in such peril. Many of the party faithful are disinterested, if not disenchanted. The Democrats' foes — whether Republicans like John, independents, tea party followers or people just plain ticked-off — can't wait to vent.

"I'm scared to death of taxes. All the social problems the Democrats want to remedy with taxes," John says, waving a letter from that day's mail notifying him that his property tax bill is going up because he had the good sense to fix his leaky basement. Government with its hands in his pockets again.

When Ann considers the ballot choices for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat, she gets discouraged. Pat Toomey, the Republican and tea party favorite, versus Joe Sestak, the renegade Democrat who has promised to change the way Washington works. She's heard that one before.

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