By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
It is time, as the great W.C. Fields once observed, to take the bull by the tail and face the situation.
In the most recent midterm election in Alabama, 431,328 of Alabama’s roughly 3.4 million registered voters cast a ballot, meaning voter turnout was 12.7 percent.
So, line up 100 Alabamians. About 13 of them determine just about every important thing that impacts our everyday lives. Their votes determine to a large degree not only what is taxed and by how much, they also determine how a tax dollar is spent.
They make our laws, for good or ill.
Getting Out The Vote is a fundamental and a very expensive part of a professionally-run, effective campaign. It matters not how deeply a voter believes in a candidate. It hardly counts if s/he doesn’t vote.
There’s a reason other than apathy. Negative campaigning and voter suppression reflect a distinction of GOTV. It’s the complementary strategy of suppressing opposition turnout.
The ubiquitous negative attack ad doesn’t try to sway voters toward a candidate. The plan is to increase the number who fail to vote by reinforcing their belief that politics is inherently corrupt. (Step away from the dungheap, friend, you’ll just get your shoes dirty.)
Negs work. People hate them, and rightly so, but voters listen and watch and the stink sticks.
Nearly every voter is aware that it is the U – the Undecided – that swings an election. In competitive races, there’s evidence that roughly 20 percent of the electorate change their minds at least once before the election. This is the “soft vote.”
It’s believed that most Undecideds make up their minds in the seven days prior to the election. Thus the neg.
Primaries are beauty contests: look how nice I am, look at my accomplishments, look at my lovely family. Trust me. As E-day approaches and votes coalesce, one or more candidates look at the Big Board and learn they are behind. Things change.
The trailing candidate sees all starting to slip away: A year’s (or career’s) hard work, thousands upon thousands of dollars, a dream. S/he turns feral, and the only hope is to go for the throat.
A negative campaign targets opposing voters, seeking collateral damage to supporters’ morale. The side going negative has an advantage in its supporters being steadier than those of its opponent.
Sometimes, a drivingly hard neg will cause an initial drop in the fervor of its own support, because negs are poison, but it serves as its own antidote as the message kicks in and takes hold, and the opposing campaign takes the hit.
The meanest neg, and effective, is a smear tactic called a push poll. It’s meant to kill and push polls should be outlawed. Those who employ a political push poll have the manners, morals and attitudes of an alley cat. Normally, they are a desperate gamble. Some of the lower manner of life love them, though, and wallow comfortably in their own mud.
Here’s an example:
Pollster: I wonder if you’ve made up your mind on whether you’ll vote on election day for Todd Stacy or Skip Tucker?
Voter: Yes, I have.
Pollster: May I know who you have chosen?
Voter: Sure. I’m voting for Skip Tucker.
Pollster: Would you vote for Skip Tucker if you knew he hates Alabama peaches, is a Yankee and a communist-in-training?
Voter: Well, no.
Pollster: Thank you.
Of course, if the voter first answers, “Todd,”, the pollster says, “Todd thanks you very much, and wonders if he can provide transportation to the polls for you on election day.”
The charges made in a push poll normally are much harsher and without foundation.
A negative campaign is useful in particular to a voting bloc, particular in “downcard” races for smaller offices. In a race for, say, statewide judge, a relatively small percent of the voting public is affected deeply.
Say that the trial bar has a candidate who favors big jury awards, and the business community has one that favors tort reform. Each special interest group feels that millions of dollars in lawsuit awards might be at stake.
But each side is certain it can turn out an almost exact number of votes, say 25,000. The lower the voter turnout, the higher the percentage reflected by the 25,000 votes.
Negs can be a desperate gamble if taken too far. The tidal wave of hate toward Trump, as has been shown, energized his vote in the past while the Clinton Campaign was dying of autoerotic asphyxiation. Failure to GOTV was likely the main dynamic that killed the Clinton campaign.
I was on staff for Gov. Jim Folsom in a self-inflicted 1994 loss to Fob James, due in large part to failure to GOTV. Ahead as much as 10 points 10 days out, Folsom made a fatal error in an interview with the Birmingham News. It was remarked that he had a lead that looked insurmountable, to which he replied, “It could be a landslide.”
Like Clinton later, the overconfidence simply sent a message that his supporters didn’t have to go vote. So they didn’t, and James won by the receding hair on his head.
It now appears that the left has a slight lead for the midterms. But does it have momentum? That’s a determining factor. And here’s the other thing about polls by media. They are deceptive, self-serving and unreliable. Until I see a poll’s questions and the context in which they are presented, they constitute that very dungheap we wish to avoid.
But please listen: Voting isn’t just a right. It is also a duty. Get Out To Vote.
(Next week: Can’t We All Just Get Along?)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.