by Paul Goldman
UVA Professor Larry Sabato had several insightful comments in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch story on the U.S. Senate race between Tim Kaine and George Allen. The comments suggest that Kaine has the better, and easier, path to win next year. This assumes that Sabato’s view is appreciated for its general accuracy, as opposed to something specific to this particular point in political time.
In essence, the Professor explains the fallacy of most campaigns: all they do is feed our 24/7 noise machine. That is to say: A 24/7 attack, attack attack every little thing strategy soon loses its credibility with those who are persuadable. This has created a new definition of “independent voter” — namely, someone who really isn’t independent, but who likes to believe he or she votes for the person not the party. In truth, they call themselves independent more as protest against the system, while actually leaning one way or another, with little chance a noise machine campaign can change their mind.
A generation ago, the term independent had a different matrix here in Virginia. But right now, in the 2012 U.S. Senate race, the number of voters truly in the persuadable column is far smaller than the label “independent” would imply.
This has huge implications for both Kaine and Allen, since most of the general public already has a personal opinion, negative or positive, about them and their perceived policies.
Sabato’s analysis suggests the following three factors.
First, for Kaine, it would be wise to raise but save as much money as possible until either after the Republican nominee for President is known, or when some real and unexpected event occurs, capable of truly impacting public opinion. Any other approach computes to an almost certain waste of money.
Allen would likely be smart to follow the same strategy relative to his contest against Kaine. However, since Allen faces the possibility of a significant primary challenge – slim chance right now but the Bachmann insurgency suggests one of her supporters could catch fire as the anti-Allen – he faces the risk of having to spend a lot of money just to get into the main event. Advantage Kaine.
Secondly, both men, in the end, will find it difficult to change peoples’ opinions about their prior service in office. They might seem to move voters after a wave of expensive advertisements, but the needle will go back to the starting point after their opponent airs the counter case. Advertising only changes the playing field if either Kaine or Allen can force the other guy to go broke trying to keep up. That isn’t likely.
Thirdly, those voters left to actually persuade by logical deduction are relatively younger than the electorate as whole, and have less information about Kaine and Allen. To a large degree, their attitudes will be shaped by the presidential candidates. Republicans like to say there is no way for the President to do as well with this group as he did in 2008. But that isn’t the appropriate marker in the Senate race. Kaine doesn’t need Obama to be as strong, only meaningfully stronger than whomever the GOP nominates. Right now, there is no reason to assume otherwise. Advantage Kaine.
The takeaway: Kaine is better positioned to spend the next 12 months running a campaign aimed at improving his personal image, avoiding nasty attacks, and generally trying to show he is a decent, sensible guy. This is basically his favored approach anyway. The liberal activists appear to want far more bashing, but Kaine is positioned to smile and keep going.
Allen, on the other hand, faces a conservative constituency far more dominant as a proportion of his party, which likewise wants far more bashing. So far, Allen appears to believe he isn’t strong enough to keep smiling and stay positive, so he bashes away at almost every opportunity.
Professor Sabato’s analysis says all the bashing will not persuade any significant number of people to change their position, which means that such motivation must come from another strategy. But we do know that a constant bashing image raises a candidate’s negative vibes.
The importance of this insight is as follows: it applies to the 2013 Governor’s race as well, in which 24/7 attacks would likewise be only noise to most Virginians. The risk therefore is the attackers become stereotyped in the minds of voters as negative campaigners. Moreover, given Bob McDonnell’s popularity, the only one capable of carrying an anti-McDonnell message is Senator Warner. He isn’t going to do it because he knows it will hurt him. Which means: If Warner, who is as popular McDonnell in the latest poll, knows it will hurt him, then imagine what the blowback will be when a far less popular Democrat does it.
Sabato is not suggesting disarmament. But his analysis suggests being careful not to be seduced by the noise machine. If you are seen as part of it, then whatever slim chances remain of being a credible persuader might disappear.
The noise machine has so turned off Americans that fewer and fewer want to listen, meaning they have retreated to their corners even though they claim to have an open mind.
I read all this as suggesting that a smart, uplifting, positive campaign, long on good ideas and short on personal attacks, may be counterintuitive inside the noise machine, but it is poised to be very successful for the first candidate willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.
If Sabato is right, this approach seems far more likely to appeal to Tim Kaine than to George Allen.