Will either candidate motivate disenchanted voters?

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Bernie Niemeier

So suddenly, things all change.  In mid-September Ken Cuccinelli was trailing in most of the polls for the governor’s race.  Most, except for the RRR poll, which stands for Republican Republican Republican and bills itself as a GOP polling firm, run by Republicans for Republicans.

The RRR, described by some as a “mock polling company,” was created by the Cuccinelli campaign in response to established polls whose results were less favorable to their candidate.  The RRR’s purported results definitely have the air of satire, claiming a margin of error of “+/- 0.00%.”  Is this a joke? Really?  The saying goes, “You can’t make this stuff up!” Well, apparently you can.

The “truth-o-meter” has been a bit out of sorts lately, with candidates from both parties seemingly oblivious to the factual nature of their campaign trail claims.  Sadly, the underlying assumption is that voters aren’t smart enough or don’t care enough to separate fact from fiction.  Apparently today’s perceived path to political victory lies at the intersection of thinly disguised satire and outright fiction.

Go ahead and say that I can’t take a joke; tell me this is gonzo politics at its best.  Maybe I’m too conservative and expect something more.  Maybe I’m elitist, thinking that higher standards should prevail.

I really struggle with the thought that votes can be won on dubious economic promises with the reward being a a chance to legislate a party-centric agenda.  Even so, in this  governor’s race positive campaign promises are completely overwhelmed by negative messages.  Both campaigns have focused on total destruction of their opposition.

There’s certainly nothing new about negative campaigns.  My earliest memory of political ads goes back to the 1964 presidential race.  Conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater from Arizona ran against Democrat Lyndon Johnson, who had become president less than a year earlier following the assassination of JFK.

The Johnson campaign gave heavy airtime to an overly dramatic television spot showing the East Coast of the U.S. being sawed off the map and floating out to sea, claiming that’s what would happen to our interests if Goldwater won the election.  Another spot called “Daisy Girl” predicted nuclear war if Goldwater was elected.

The voiceover at the end of most of Johnson’s ads said, “Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”  Johnson won in a landslide victory with more than 61.1 percent of the vote.  More than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

The last time that voter turnout in a Virginia gubernatorial race exceeded 60 percent was 20 years ago in the race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Mary Sue Terry.  Allen won with a convincing 58 percent of the vote, ending a 12-year hold on the Executive Mansion by Democrats.

More recently, turnout in the commonwealth’s governors’ races has been in the low 40 percent range, with the conventional wisdom being that lower turnout favors Republican candidates.  In recent years, the

Republican majority in the General Assembly has worked hard to enact new voter identification laws that might further restrict access to the polls.

The amount of negativity in this year’s race has led many to conclude that they aren’t happy with McAuliffe or Cuccinelli.  I’ve had conversations with voters from both parties who say they won’t vote for either candidate.  If turnout is low because of an unusually high degree of candidate dissatisfaction among Republicans, conventional wisdom predicting a GOP victory could be proven wrong.

As the election nears, both candidates are trying belatedly to bring some balance to their campaigns with more positive messages regarding education and economic development.  The credibility of these messages, however, remains tarnished by negative ads that have left voters understandably skeptical of any claims made by either side.

One might conclude that negative campaigning is an unavoidable necessity, but this may simply be self-justification. 

In 2012, Tim Kaine’s messages in his U.S. Senate race against George Allen were largely positive.  Kaine took the high road and won by a margin of 4.9 percent, while Obama’s margin of victory over Romney in

Virginia during the same election came in a full point lower at 3.9 percent.

It is indeed unfortunate that enthusiasm for the candidates in this year’s governor’s race appears to be in short supply. Still, the 1964 campaign axiom rings loud and true — the stakes are too high for you to stay home.

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