Virginia Governor’s Race 09

Headline Writer Forgot to Read the Story

The Washington Post has a story today about the Virginia governor’s race that reflects, I hope, simply how a headline writer can sometimes spend too little time actually reading the story.  Of course, it could be that he or she looked for any story morsel that would reflect his or her opinion.  If you have another theory, I’m all ears.

The headline on the front page of the Metro section reads “Recession’s Pains Dull Attention to Campaigns.”  People have other things to think about.  Even the head on the jump reflects the same message:  “Struggling Residents Tune Out Governor’s Race.”  In fact, the economy is cited as the reason for the poor turnout in the Democratic primary.  At least that’s the inference of the story.

A deep nationwide recession has touched every corner of the commonwealth, from the depressed factory towns of the south to the high-tech corridors of Fairfax County. For many voters, the problems seem too big, too intractable for any governor to fix, which might have been a factor in the 6 percent turnout in Tuesday’s primary.

But in 2005, the turnout in the GOP gubernatorial primary was 3.98%.  Granted, in that one, it wasn’t hotly contested.  The 2001 Democratic primaries for lieutenant governor and attorney general were, however, and that turnout was only 4.23%.  So on what basis does the reporter say that 6% is a poor turnout?  It is in a cosmic sense, but when was the last time we were significantly above that for a gubernatorial primary?

Let’s forget, for the moment, that the opposite of what the headline reads is the conventional wisdom.  In these tough times, the wise politicos tell us, people are looking to government for solutions, for help, for anything.  Being against government is an argument only the diehard ideological Republicans will make.  The rest of us are looking to it to help us catch a break.

So what evidence do the reporter and headline writer point to support their contention that voters are tuning out, or that “the problems seem too big, too intractable for any governor to fix”?  How did they determine that “many voters” feel this way?

The lede is an anecdote about a woman who was at a school that doubled as a polling place last Tuesday. She was there to pick up her daughter.  She didn’t vote, but nothing about what she said indicated that she was tuning out of the race because of economic difficulties. She may have never voted in a primary in her life.  She may be a Republican who didn’t think it was her place to vote in a Democratic primary.  She may think that voting for politicians only encourages them.  We don’t know.   

In fact, the only person quoted in the story that supports the headline’s contention is a recently unemployed multimedia producer. 

"It just feels sometimes like you’re getting along, you’re able to maintain, but the little bumps in the road keep knocking you down a little bit more each time," he said. "I get the e-mails from all the candidates, from the Republicans or what have you. I delete just about everything."

[The producer], who calls himself a conservative Christian, said he is cynical about politicians. He said he believes that Providence, not the state, will lead him out of his troubles. It will be up to the candidates to persuade him otherwise.

Providence 1, Republicans 0, and the “what have you’s” a minus number. (This certainly has deflated the Democrats.)

Then you have a former USA Today editor who

…has not paid much attention to the governor’s race but will get up to speed by November out of necessity. 

"I have never looked towards any government for any support, ever, until now," he said.

That sounds like he thinks it’s a necessity to follow the governor’s race, that is does matter.

So now we’re at 1-1 in the score.

So how did the writer of the headlines come to his conclusion?

Perhaps she, too, relied on providence.

With such thin gruel with which to write a story, was this one worth the newsprint and ink?  Especially when there are such economic problems, wouldn’t it have been better to write a story about how state government can help?  What is it that state government can do, and that a governor can impact, that would help people?  If they knew, they might be in a better position to seek answers from candidates.

If you wonder why people are apathetic, maybe it’s because newspapers write stories to tell you that it doesn’t matter who you elect. 

If it doesn’t matter who we elect, why does the local paper even cover the campaign?

Another story about process – without any real substantiation. 

Republicans Can’t Help Themselves

Creigh Deeds is handed a little gift.

[Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob] McDonnell … said Deeds would be a poor steward to guide the state through a recession. "My philosophy is to keep taxes, regulation and litigation low," he said.

Sounds like a Bush policy to me.  Keep regulation low?  I’d never let Bob McDonnell forget that he favors less regulation of financial markets.  Look where that got us.

Dems Decide to Win

Creigh Deeds victory in the Virginia gubernatorial primary has been described as “stunning.”  An afterthought to the battle between better known names in Democratic circles, Deeds is still being dissed by The Washington Post’s Roz Helderman:

Deeds lives in a sparsely populated county on the West Virginia border, a heritage that brings with it a stammering, unpolished earnestness. His adversaries have been poking fun at recent TV commercials featuring him staring silently into the camera — suggesting that Northern Virginians might be turned off merely by his heavy drawl.

A drawl and roots in rural America didn’t exactly make Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter or LBJ unelectable.  And remember that the opposite of unpolished is slick, rarely spoken as an attribute by voters.

The breath of Deeds victory is astonishing.  A quick review of the results show that he won all but five counties and six cities.  His margin of victory in northern Virginia must give the Democratic establishment pause.  Conventional wisdom is that only hardest core Democrats vote in primaries and vote for the most liberal of candidates.

Northern Virginia wasn’t “turned off merely by his heavy drawl.”  ANd he had an advantage in a three-way race as the two front-runenrs attacked each other, a strategy the country bumpkin had already previewed to Waldo Jaquith.  Patience, as Bob Holsworth noted, worked.  Voters didn’t like what they heard about the two other guys.  As since when is “earnestness” a character flaw?

But importantly, even the most liberal Virginia Dems decided, to their credit, to vote with their head, not their heart.  In short, they decided that more than anything, they want to win the governor’s mansion one more time.  Neither McAuliffe, who frequently came off as a used car salesman, or Moran, who mistakenly went even farther left during the campaign, had much chance of winning in November.  Deeds does.

One challenge Deeds will have is to overcome his “conservative” label that the media will inevitably tag him with, as if the man still supports Jim Crow laws.  He was fearless in advocating for transportation soplutions, including a gas tax, that probably weren’t paramount in his neck of the owods.  People in  Bath County don’t have hour long commutes generally.  Constantly calling him a conservative might surpress Democratic voter turnout.  They need enthusiasm.

Another challenge will be to redefine Bob McDonnell.  It’s not hard to do, but is Deeds up for negative campaigning?  CAn he redifine McDonnell as teh right-wing zealot that he is, and will that be enough to energize Democrats and pull in a number of independents and moderate Republicans.  If he can, it will be a huge advantage.  People who attend Regent University, Pat Robertson’s law school, are surely among the nicest, but you don’t want them running your government.  I remain hopeful that Deeds, in his “stammering” style, will be able to cut MCDonnell down to size, with a smile.

And it’s apparent that the gun issue has lost its attraction to liberals.  Many may feel as I do.  I don’t want guns in bars, or AK-47s sold in bulk to anyone with cash.  But the bigger problem is keeping out of the hands of criminals, and I no longer think stricter gun laws can achieve that.

I’m not sure that after so much of the Democratic Party establishment ignored Deeds, he will do well to ignore them in crafting his general election campaign.  All the slick brochures in the world won’t overcome major flaws.  And maybe he has a more sophisticated way of getting to voters than leaders of the party, who still save all their pennies for direct mail, and can’t think strategically.

Voters or Reporters “Just Tuning In”?

In Sunday’s Washington Post, the Virginia gubernatorial Democratic primary race got page A1 placement, apparently because voters are just becoming aware of the race.

The three Democrats seeking their party’s nod for governor of Virginia have launched a final, frenetic push for support in advance of Tuesday’s primary, a contest that remains remarkably fluid because vast numbers of undecided voters are only just tuning in now.

So voters are “just tuning in?”

I’ve asked The Post for some explanation of how they made that determination.  Could it be that there is a large undecided segment of voters?  They could be undecided because they can’t tell much difference between Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran and Creigh Deeds.  Or perhaps they are unimpressed, frustrated, disappointed or still doing their research.

That newspapers cover state races only at the last minute is often attributed to their perception that people don’t tune in until the last week.  Certainly, the campaigns think that.  Why else would they wait until the last week to send us sometimes multiple mailings in a day, overflowing our mailboxes with dead trees we throw away without reading.

The Post has had articles about the race, of course.  My own quick Lexis Nexus search show nearly 40 article in the period March 1 through Memorial Day.  But only two could be remotely called issue articles. One was about New York Mayor Bloomberg running an ad about Virginia gun sales and another about teachers being skeptical of McAuliffe’s promises.  All the rest were about process:  Dems worried about voter fatigue, power of big names in race, a “drizzle” of ads, squabbles over fundraising, courting Facebook users, ties to lobbyists, etc.

It’s hard to tune in if newspapers aren’t telling you where the candidates stand on key issues.  You can argue that the three in the Virginia race are cut from the same cloth.  But there are key difference, some of which The Post has lately covered.  But would the months leading up to the primary be a good time to raises some of the more complex issue early enough so that voters could ask for more detail than we usually get at rallies?

At the very least there could have more substance and less process to the more than three dozen articles before Memorial Day.  After all, finding out about a key issue the weekend before the election doesn’t give you much time to do a little research, leaving you with the reporters’ takes on those issues.  But maybe that’s what they want.