Ads, polls and images decide elections

Political campaigns are now well underway, and television is flooded with political ads.

The outcome of this year’s elections will be a judgment on the strongly conservative politics of the Tea Party and its friends, but it looks like there will be no landslide either way, only a shift at the margins.

A few elections or a relatively few votes in many elections will determine the broader result of this year’s balloting.

For voters still considering their choices, a number of factors are at play that can influence the outcome. And, unfortunately for some candidates, these factors may have little to do with the issues and proposals.

Recently published research suggests that many voters make up their minds based on their initial impression of the candidate’s personality. If they like the person, they may be inclined to give no further thought to the elections and simply vote for the candidate.

For incumbents, those initial impressions are long past, but the voters tend to stick with their previous voting behavior. Most incumbents win.

First impressions can be created by the candidate’s television spots. Even if you do not watch the news, you will it find it almost impossible to avoid commercials pushing politicians and causes.

That allows the candidate to project the image that he or she favors.

Watching the Maine candidates for governor, I come way seeing independent Eliot Cutler seeking to show his breadth of experience and knowledge, Democrat Mike Michaud stressing his proven ability to work across the aisle, and incumbent Republican Paul LePage emphasizing his business-like approach to governing.

If any of these messages resonates with me, my mind could be easily made up. I would not have to look at their record or even if they are telling the truth.

Of course, media spots are not limited to candidates’ positive messages. Negative ads, attacking the opposition, are frowned upon though they are a part of American political history. Plus, they work.

And candidates are always looking for a “gotcha” moment, when a negative revelation may be enough to change perceptions and sink their opponent. Sometimes the truth has to be stretched to make “gotcha” work, but there are almost always a partisan ready to try.

Recently, a Maine GOP spokesman tried to tie Michaud to a posting by an independent supporter in which an off-color reference, unknown to most voters, was made. The effort failed and could end up helping Michaud.

Raising “gotcha” issues is an attempt to create a single, election-changing event. Underdogs hope that something will happen between now and Election Day that will change voters’ perceptions of a leading candidate.

That can happen, and sometimes it’s a gaffe or the emergence of a hidden problem from the candidate’s past. Such errors or revelations can cause voters to take a second look at a race on which they had already made up their minds.

Then, there’s polling. Almost every day, there are reports of new polling results, meant not only to inform, but to create bandwagon effects or to stimulate more effort.

We tend to treat polling information as fact rather than as one indicator among many. The recent Scottish independent vote was forecast by several polls to be a squeaker, but it wasn’t. Union with the UK won by 10 percent.

We gloss over the so-called “margin of error.” or the fact that one time in 20, the poll will be off the mark. In close races, the marginal difference in results can virtually make the survey valueless. Still, thanks to the polls, we allow ourselves to be influenced by the way we believe a campaign is going.

Elections can be influenced by campaigns that either round off the facts excessively or downright lie. If campaigns fling false information back and forth, people decide either based on perceptions and prejudices or, out of disgust, simply don’t vote.

But the situation is not hopeless.

The media must go beyond reporting what each side says in providing objective and complete coverage. Online news, newspapers, television and radio should ferret out and reveal the truth, risking some candidates claiming bias.

Of course, such reporting has to be based on real research and the facts, not packaging unsupported opinion as if it were news.

The real solution is up to voters, who have to work at understanding candidates and issues. Votes do matter, but only if voters take the trouble to dig into elections.

It’s dangerous to our system of government if people spend more time on fantasy football than on real elections.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.