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JOANNA WEISS

Campaign apathy: a political junkie’s lament

This week, I took a long drive through several rolling-hill suburbs south of Boston, past horse farms and houses and retail strips and leaves that were starting to turn, before I realized what was missing: The yard signs.

In the runup to last year’s Boston mayoral primary, you couldn’t turn your head a quarter-inch inside the city without seeing a candidate’s name on a sign. On this ride, I saw a grand total of two small Warren-Tolman-for-Attorney-General signs, plus a feeble sandwich board on a median strip that said “State Election Next Week.”

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If there’s physical proof of civic apathy, this is it. A small minority of voters is expected to come out for Tuesday’s statewide primary, for reasons that many have speculated on: busy lives, campaign fatigue, candidates who, for the most part, are competent and credible, but not electrifying.

Look, I can relate. I got an automated telephone poll the other day, asking me to rate my interest in the election — press 5 for “very interested,” 4 for “somewhat interested,” and so on. I had to be honest. I hit 4. And I cover these races for a living.

Still, there’s a difference between whining and disengaging, and it’s worthy of some thought. This is not a go-out-and-vote soapbox speech. It’s more about trying to understand one of our country’s key divides: not liberals and conservatives, but people who love politics and people who don’t.

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For some answers, I stopped by Legacy Place, an outdoor mall in Dedham. I talked to shoppers and retail employees on break, asking them if they knew there was an election coming up.

Many did: the couple from Dorchester, involved in the Boston mayoral race, who hadn’t decided whom to support for governor; the retiree from Dedham who listens to conservative talk radio, and is telling his friends to vote against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley — though he’s not completely sure that all the stories about her are true.

There’s a difference between whining and disengaging, and it’s worthy of some thought.

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Some didn’t know — like Libby Madigan, 23, a retail worker from Townsend. She follows national politics. She likes Scott Brown. She’s worried about ISIS. She watches local news in the mornings with her mother. Still, the state races haven’t broken into her consciousness: “Oh my God,” she said, “I had no idea.”

And some people didn’t want to know. “They’re all liars. America is dead,” said Bob Johnson, 68, of Boston, lounging in a chair outside of L.L. Bean.

“So I take it you’re not voting next week,” I said.

“Hah!” he replied. “For who? The Devil or Satan? Same difference.”

That’s a little extreme, but it falls somewhere on a continuum. One Whole Foods employee, a 35-year-old from Dedham, told me she doesn’t follow politics because it’s too confusing: “You don't know who to trust. It’s hard to be objective. It’s easier to avoid it.”

It’s understandable, if a little unfair, this aversion to how elections get waged and covered. Campaigns do talk about issues. The media do cover policy. But when the candidates largely agree — as the ones running Tuesday do — campaigns try to draw contrasts. That negativity can be illuminating. It can also look petty. And when every miniature critique is pumped up by a partisan machine, the truth can be hard to sort out.

The political junkies — activists, operatives, media types — know this is nothing new. It’s part of the game, the way campaigns get their messages out, and it’s often entertaining. (I wish everyone saw negative ads like I do, as artifacts instead of exhortations.)

But if you’re not inclined to see politics as sport, you lump it all in with the other bad news: Court cases, convictions, mismanagement, misconduct. The real shame of the probation department scandal, as well as other recent failures in state agencies, is the pall they cast on every politician, the general sense that most of them are useless.

The truth is, nearly everyone running on Tuesday — for governor, attorney general, treasurer, on down — is a capable person with impressive accomplishments and good intentions. Some would do a better job than others. The differences are worth knowing. The decision is worth making.

But the whole thing is also painfully easy to ignore.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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