Politics on Tap
6:26 am
Mon August 4, 2014

An Economic Bar-Ometer We Can All Drink To

Want to know what voters really think about politicians and the economy? Ask when they've had a beer or two. For the coming election, WNIJ wanted to go beyond its usual in-depth coverage of the issues and candidates. So we invited Pushcart Prize-winning author Dan Libman to visit taverns and saloons in LaSalle County, an area served by our repeater station WNIW at 91.3 FM. Dan used his iPhone to interview imbibing patrons. The audio he brought back, and his essay below, reveal much about the mood of the electorate in Mendota and LaSalle-Peru.

The Economy is like the weather: Everyone talking about it, no one doing anything about it one way or the other. Or is that right? Unlike the weather we do have a bit of influence. During an election, we presumably get to nudge it slightly. The citizenry gets an opportunity to vote—if we take advantage of it:

“The economy is down for sure. As a bartender you can always tell.”

Jackie mans the taps at the whimsically named RePhils on First Street near the Illinois river either in LaSalle, or Peru, but definitely in the area locally known as LaSalle-Peru. We were having a conversation on a recent Thursday evening. And we had plenty of time to talk, because even though her downtown establishment was filled with stools, beer and poker machines, it was not filled drinkers.

She continued, “People don’t have the money to go out or do anything any more.

“That’s affecting your business?” I asked.

“Absolutely.”

“Will that affect the way you vote in November?”

Jackie had an easy, infectious laugh, and this idea struck her funny. She said, “I probably won’t vote because I don’t trust any of them. They’re full of lies. I’m registered, I just won’t vote for people I don’t trust.”

I asked if she had voted in the last election?

“No.”

RePhils had only two other customers, both friends of hers stopping by to say hello, and one of them wasn’t even drinking. This was her barometer for a down economy, literally a bar-ometer. I also wondered if an empty saloon on a Thursday night was a harbinger of electoral mood, economic discontent, or just bad luck, so I caught up with NIU Political Science professor Matt Streb at Fatty’s in DeKalb to ask.

“We do have something in political science called retrospective voting,” Matt explained. “What retrospective voting says is that essentially it’s really a referendum on the incumbent. And so if you are doing well or the economy is doing well you go and you vote and you say hey we’re going to give the incumbent another term because we’re happy. If we’re not happy with the economy—and this is an economic thing, it doesn’t deal with anything else, it deals solely with economic issues—if we’re not happy, then we’re going to throw the bums out and we’re going to vote for the challenger.”

I like this idea of Retrospective Voting, but voter happiness turns out to be a pretty tough thing to gauge. I found a lot of discontent a little way up the road in Mendota, but not a whole lot of agreement on which ‘bums to throw out.’ Mendota’s two bars on Main Street both had plenty of customers. Main Street Station Bar and Grill has a row of tables and a pretty extensive menu, including burgers and rib eye steaks, and according to a hand printed sign on the wall, every Tuesday tacos are served with an apostrophe S.

At the bar, just finishing dinner, I found Nancy.

“I’m an independent,” she told me. “I voted for Republicans before but I’ll never vote for another Republican as long as I live. They’re idiots. Boehner is an idiot—I like to call him John Boner.”

I asked her who her local congressman is and she paused before admitting, “I don’t know.”

Separated from Nancy by one wall but political worlds apart I found Steve sitting at the bar next door, Cowboy and Tony’s Butt Shack BBQ, having a beer over fried catfish and coleslaw.

“I’m against gay marriage,” he began as soon as I had my iPhone rolling.  “And abortions and stuff like that need to be stopped. Anything else conservative that you want to put in there,” he laughed.

I asked if the economy was at all on his radar or if he only concerned with social issues.

“See,” he said. “My thing is this: Once we as a nation get right with God, the money will fix itself. God will fix the money. I really believe that.”

These to me seemed more like global concerns than local pocket book anxieties. I asked Matt Strebb which was more compelling to voters.

“I always ask my class this," he said. "If you’re going to say what is driving most people to the polls, is it your own individual personal situation, do I have a job, how are my stocks doing that type of thing, do you think that’s what’s drawing people to the polls and influencing people, or is it kind of the national economy as a whole. And I think most people would assume it’s a pocket book voter, you know, I’m not doing well, I’m mad, and I want to vote the bums out. And it’s not a perfect dichotomy but there is actual fairly significant percentage of the public that is voting based on an overall view of the national economy. They may not be blaming the president or their own congressman but they aren’t happy if the economy as a whole isn’t doing well.”

This definitely squares with the feelings of Mark, whom I found having a cold one inside a corner bar in a working class neighborhood of LaSalle called Jake’s Pour House. Mark was pretty sure he knew what he was going to hear leading up to November.

“We’re going to create more jobs,” he recited. “We’re going to give you good paying jobs. I ain’t seen it yet and I have not seen trickle down work yet. I’m tired of the same old same old.”

Back in Mendota, my new drinking buddy Nancy shared this jaded outlook.

“Low wages, unemployment, our government, lazy government. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

“I’m retired,” she added.

Maybe not so much retrospective voting so much as invective voting? I checked with Matt Streb on this:

“Look, this fall you will see incumbents talking about the fact, we’re—especially Democrats—we’re moving out of the recession," he said. "Things are going up, things are doing well, but it’s never quite got over the hump yet and turned around. And I think you’ll see Republicans try to exploit that.”

We have one more major issue on the minds of the voters: I’m very curious about the Affordable Care Act, or ObamaCare. Will it actually affect people’s vote, or at this point is it just pundit chatter? To find out I’m heading back out to the bars to have a beer and listen to voters. Remember, the first round is always on me.

--Dan Libman

Part three of "Politics on Tap" airs Monday, Sept. 8 during Morning Edition. Listen at 6:34 and 8:34. We welcome your comments about this and other reports in this series. Start the conversation below...