The television is blaring back-to-back mudslinging campaign commercials, and the mailbox is full of political fliers containing either glittering generalities or down-and-dirty defamation.
It’s in this charged atmosphere that Idahoans are making decisions this year in an important election that will determine everything from the next governor and congressman to how the state approaches school funding and growth. Polls show key races are extremely close, but many voters remain undecided.
“It’s exciting to the extent that there are so many close races and so much in doubt at this point in the campaign, but the byproduct is all of this garbage,” said Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby.
Debbie Morris, an administrative assistant from Coeur d’Alene, called it “a huge turn-off for voters.”
Said Lori White, of Hayden, “We’re particularly inundated here because of the overlap of candidates from Washington and Idaho. It’s hard after a while to distinguish one list from the other.”
Mike Hayes, a Coeur d’Alene retiree, said, “If you want to vote intelligently, you have to do your own research and forget the smoke screen sent up by the candidates in all parties.”
Idaho voters are doing that by turning to nonpartisan resources like The Common Interest, Project Vote Smart, newspaper voter guides, the League of Women Voters and the Idaho Secretary of State’s Web site.
“Political ads have gotten so biased and out of whack that I don’t know how anybody could possibly rely on those as a source of good information about any candidate,” said Anne Dwelle, an attorney and moderate Republican from Moscow, Idaho. “I just find them to be less than useful, and offensive in many cases.”
Last week, Dwelle became the 1,000th member of The Common Interest, an organization started by Harvard professor and Idahoan Keith Allred to try to cut through the extremes of partisan and special-interest politics and focus on substance. She got so excited after visiting the group’s Web site that she spent her whole lunch hour reading through its voter information.
“It seemed to be even-handed, it didn’t have a political agenda,” she said. “What was on there was written in a clear way.”
That’s the kind of thing voters are looking for this year – but it’s not easy to find amid the cacophony of hotly contested campaigns. The noise level has been driven up by close races for governor and Congress that have drawn unprecedented amounts of independent spending for attack ads against the various groups’ least-favorite candidates.
“A lot of it is distorted at best, dishonest at worst,” said Allred, the professor who founded The Common Interest.
Federal Election Commission records show that in the month of October alone, three national groups spent nearly $1 million on independent campaigning against Democratic congressional candidate Larry Grant or for his Republican opponent Bill Sali in Idaho’s 1st Congressional District – more than three times as much as the two candidates raised or spent together during the same period.
That’s not all. The Republican Governors Association spent nearly a quarter-million dollars from Oct. 27 to Halloween for ads attacking Democratic candidate for governor Jerry Brady. Republican candidate Butch Otter was the target of a $46,210 independent expenditure from the state Democratic Party the same week.
Weatherby said his greatest concern about all the negative advertising is that it could so disgust some voters that they won’t vote at all. “I think that is the worst aspect of these, in addition to perhaps ruining people’s weekends, they’re turning the voters off by all of the charges and countercharges wall-to-wall. They’re turning many of these candidates into unbelievable monsters.”
Jan Sarchio, a Realtor from Coeur d’Alene, said, “Why do some candidates have so little to say about how they will make life better if I vote for them? Are they afraid to say what they believe in? I’m tired of scare tactics. But it must work, because they keep doing it.”
Allred said the research is mixed on the effectiveness of negative campaign advertising. “Clearly, anecdotally, in some cases they go too far and they backfire,” he said. “But it’s a little hard to imagine that they all spend this much money on it if they haven’t seen some effects.”
To explain complicated issues like this year’s Idaho ballot measures or key issues in the top races, Allred noted, “you’ve got to try to dig into what is some pretty technical stuff.” With 30 seconds to make an impression on TV viewers, that’s not practical, he said. “If you want to get something to stick and you’ve only got 30 seconds, then your best shot is negative emotion.”
Dan Aeschliman, a retired scientist and engineer from Sagle, said he watches for less-than-truthful claims. “If I know that an ad is twisting the truth, then I am very definitely inclined not to vote for the sponsor of the ad, since he or she has already demonstrated dishonesty,” he said.
Said Rich Emery, a retired telephone technician and Air Force veteran from Rathdrum, “What I wish would happen is that the candidates would just address the issues. Be honest, and say what they would do.” He added, “The person I will vote for, regardless of the party, is the one who just sticks with their agenda and doesn’t lower themselves to the mudslinging and smear stuff.”