Opinion: Daily Journal

The Iowa Myth and the Governor’s Race

RALEIGH – My guess is that as soon as it became clear that Richard Vinroot and Patrick Ballantine were going to be the top-two candidates in the gubernatorial primary results on Tuesday, each earning a ticket to an August 17 runoff, some political pros and commentators began writing up their take on a popular analogy.

It is said that in a multi-candidate primary, candidates who find a way to keep out of slugfests and ad wars will prosper as voters are turned off by negative campaigning by frontrunners and start look for an alternative. The new and popular proof of this political truism is said to be found in the Democratic presidential caucus in Iowa, where frontrunners Howard Dean and Richard Gephardt clobbered each other on television in the last few weeks of the campaign, allowing John Kerry and John Edwards to slip into the lead.

The argument will be that Vinroot and Bill Cobey should have headed this cautionary tale. A couple of weeks ago, Vinroot led in public polls with about 30 percent of the vote, give or take, with Cobey in the low 20s and Ballantine a somewhat-distant third. Then Cobey made the statement that he had never voted to raise taxes during his term in Congress. Vinroot immediately responded by pointed out that Cobey had voted three times for federal tax increases (albeit relatively minor ones). Rather than simply admit error and correct the record, Cobey charged Vinroot with “dirty politics” and the exchange escalated into an array of charges and countercharges.

As this process unfolded, Ballantine began to surge in the polls. By the weekend before the election, he and Cobey were essentially neck-and-neck in the race and somewhat behind Vinroot. By election day, Vinroot had gotten little of the undecided vote to break his way, ending up with 30 percent of the vote. Ballantine essentially tied him with 30 percent, thus making the runoff, while Cobey fell slightly behind at 27 percent.

So, what are we to make of a potential comparison between the Democrats’ Iowa scrum and the Republicans’ North Carolina tax tiff? Not a whole lot, in my opinion. First, the notion that Dean and Gephardt blew it in Iowa because of negative TV ads has proven to be a myth that formed quickly in punditry circles without having any real evidence to back in up. Excellent reporting by Roger Simon in a recent issue of U.S. News & World Report revealed that Kerry’s surge started before the ads did, that it had little to do with them (it was about organization and strategy), and that most Iowa voters likely to go to the caucuses weren’t pay much attention to TV messages by that point.

The second problem with the comparison is that there were other factors going on in the last couple of weeks. Ballantine’s campaign was on the air in major television markets with an effective set of ads – more conventional that his earlier efforts, and showing a youthful and energetic candidate offering a clear message of change in Raleigh on issues voters cared about, such as taxes and economic development. Cobey’s advertising was underwhelming by comparison. Futhermore, while his handling of the tax issue probably hurt him with some primary voters, he obviously attracted some undecided voters in the last days. Vinroot apparently didn’t, but that’s probably due to the old pattern of late-deciding voters breaking against the known quantity in a big race, since they’ve obviously been looking for an alternative all along.

I don’t doubt that a few voters might have been turned off by the Vinroot-Cobey jabs, but expect some observers to exaggerate the point. Vinroot and Ballantine will likely criticize each other during their brief runoff campaign. As long as their exchanges are substantive and factual, rather than personal and nasty, the result probably won’t be to weaken the eventual nominee that much. He will have far larger problems to worry about in the fall, such as a late start against a well-financed incumbent in a year in which a Republican president may not win by a large-enough margin to offer coattails to cling to.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.