#27 – Retail politicians and ward heelers.

When writing recently about ward heelers, someone told me that my term was old-fashioned and the new term for ward heeler was retail politician. I was going to correct my previous article but first I did some research.

What I learned was that a ward heeler and a retail politician are not the same concept. A ward heeler came into being in 19th Century America as the local eyes, ears and legs of the political bosses and, in exchange for hard work and delivering the votes, the ward heeler’s reward was some minor job through city hall or state legislature, wherever the party had power. Some ward heelers supplemented their pay and social status by being the local insurance debit collector or by being the local numbers runner.

‘Retail politician’ is a much newer concept that applies to an elected politician. This is a politician who is adept at working at the lowest common understanding of the voters. In effect, they are very good at merchandising themselves to appeal to the broadest possible segment of their potential voters. Two very different American politicians are held up as examples of this talent. The very best in this category was believed to be Lyndon Johnson, long-serving Congressman and then Vice President and then President. The second, more current, American example, is Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and candidate for Vice President with John McCain. While some political pundits will bristle at combining these two very different people, there is no question but that they were outstanding in working political crowds. Johnson never lost touch with the voters until, as President, he was unable to compromise his communications style to deal with the realities of foreign affairs. Palin certainly works her magic at the lowest common denominator but it will be her ability to learn that will determine where she will be on the political scene a few years from now.

The very best in Canada was the senior Paul Martin who represented Essex East in the House of Commons for 33 years. His son, Paul Martin Junior, who became Prime Minister briefly, something his father failed to accomplish in three tries for the office, always appeared aloof and lacked the warmth his father exhibited in dealing with people.  He was never the retail politician as was his father.

So, they are not the same. I stand by my earlier story about a specific ward heeler. He is also a Member of Canada’s Parliament, but that can be fixed.

What I also found out in my digging about retail politicians is that an American researcher had discovered that more people who shop at upscale stores prefer to vote Democrat than those who prefer to vote Republican. This, once again, proves that researchers still like to waste money proving the obvious.

It is no surprise to political observers that the upscale shopper is often better educated. They also know that better educated voters tend to be more democratic or liberal. The poor voter tends to be more right wing because of ignorance. The ignorant are more apt to accept the mindless slogans and prejudices of the political right.

The researcher found that Barack Obama won the hearts of more than 50 per cent of the voters at Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Neiman Marcus and other upscale stores. At the same time, John McCain was ahead at Walmart and Sears. I always wondered why McCain got the best response on the David Letterman late show. Now I know where Letterman’s producers get his audience. I should find better quality late night TV.


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