The costs for running for elective office have risen sharply, there’s declining voter turnout, the Republicans massive get-out-the-vote effort rolled across the Magnolia State and both parties fielded strong candidates. Those factors, not last-minute campaign issues, are what two serious election watchers noted in the waning days of the 2007 election campaign.
Secretary of State Eric Clark finds overseeing his last election in that office somewhat bittersweet. Mississippi State University professor Marty Wiseman ponders the future of the state’s Republican Party when Haley Barbour leaves office and advises the Democrats to spend the next four years getting organized.
Clark would not make a prediction regarding voter turnout before press time at the Mississippi Business Journal. He does, however, lament declining turnout percentages.
“As a government and history teacher, the national trend of unconcern and lack of involvement concerns me,” he said. “If you look at it long term, since the 1920s the trend by and large has been declining. The problem is most severe among young people, ages 18 to 30. It’s an absolute shame.”
Wiseman, who also directs MSU’s Stennis Institute of Government, didn’t think Gov. Haley Barbour would roll out his patented 72-hour blitz to bring out party voters, but he noted that political operatives from Washington and students were recruited to man the phone banks and e-mail data bases.
“I’m not sure people have factored that in,” he said. “The sheer organization of it with several thousand names in the database is amazing, and it’s been fabulously successful. It will be like a tidal wave.”
He feels it’s the under reported factor in this race, adding that no matter how good a race the Democrats have run, this tidal wave might swamp the entire Democratic campaign with the exception of Attorney General Jim Hood, whom he sees as less threatened. He views Jamie Franks as running an impressive campaign for lieutenant governor, but one that may not be able to withstand the blitz.
“The Republicans are absolutely in lock step and as organized as they’ve ever been. Haley is the galvanizing influence, and this race is not just about getting him elected. He wants more elected Republicans and to leave them in charge of everything,” Wiseman said. “We will see fragmentation in the Republican Party after he serves his last term as governor and goes back to Washington or whatever he does.
“The Democrats are scattered all over the place. If they are wise, they’ll use these next four years to get better organized.”
He notes that both parties have fielded good slates of candidates this year, but the Democrats are hampered by lack of organization. He also says the under reported legislative races are the most important the state has had in many years and could portend crucial changes in that body.
Clark observes that the increasing cost of running for office is a bad thing in that it removes the average person from entering races. “The costs are shocking for statewide and legislative offices,” he said. “I spent a few thousand in my first run for office. Now, it takes tens of thousands to run for the legislature and millions to run for statewide offices.”
He misses the elections he witnessed growing up in Smith County when candidates met voters eye to eye. “Now candidates rely on the media and mail outs,” he said. “And to a great extent they rely on consultants. I hope the consultants are telling candidates how to best present their case and not telling them what to say.”
The secretary of state is also concerned with candidates, whether advised by consultants or not, going negative earlier in campaigns. He believes it turns off voters and adds to election apathy.
Wiseman says negative campaigning is part of the usual process and may be a strategy for some candidates who hope their opponents’ supporters are turned off enough to abstain from voting.
Clark is pleased with the enormous amount of training to prepare county election officials to use the new federally mandated voting machines. “I want to brag on county officials around the state who’ve done such a good job and the thousand different training events conducted by this office,” he said. “There has been overwhelming positive acceptance.”
The program has been so successful it’s been held up as a national model for implementation of the Help Americans Vote Act. Seventy-seven Mississippi counties now have the new touch screen voting machines. When the law was passed, Hinds and Rankin counties already had touch screen machines. Three others, DeSoto, Lee and Yalobusha, wanted to buy different machines, and Harrison County had a combination of machine types. All 82 counties, Clark points out, are in compliance with the act.
This year is the 12th time for the Promote the Vote program on Clark’s watch as secretary of state. Over one million students have been involved in the program that challenges young people to vote. The program includes mock elections, debates, and contests for essays, art, political cartoons and videos. The program has twice been named one of the best in the country.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.