Today is Election Day for the off year of 2017. The big race that everyone will be watching the results of tonight is the contest between Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie for the Governorship in Virginia. I’m home in North Carolina as I write this article having spent the vast majority of my recent trip in Northern Virginia. Let’s explore what I observed in the Old Dominion State where people cheer for the University of Virginia Cavaliers.
I’m not going to be foolish enough to make a prediction in this race. I know enough about political polling to know when they tell me that they cannot predict the outcome. However I did come away with one unmistakable observation in not only the Governor’s race but also in all the races for the Virginia House of Delegates that I was exposed to advertising for. If I had to sum up 2017 Virginia political advertising in a single word the task would be easy and the word would be negative.
Many ads I saw were entirely an assault on the opponent and didn’t name the party who paid for the ad until the end; often only in a legally required disclosure. That means many ads didn’t even ask for a vote; they just said you couldn’t vote for the “other guy”.
I have to admit complete ignorance in the races for the House of Delegates, but I know a bit about the gubernatorial contest. Several of Republican Ed Gillespie’s ads contained what can most kindly be described as half-truths and misleading statements; however they were unmistakably and intentionally negative. (Unsurprisingly, I lean toward the Democratic candidate Ralph Northam.) Unless you want to consider yard signs that simply listed the name of a candidate and the office they were running for (I do not) I did not see or hear a single ad that was completely positive.
Without getting too deep into the weeds, Gillespie and the Republicans created an issue surrounding sanctuary cities in Virginia. The fact of the matter is that there are no, never have been and there are no movements to create sanctuary cities in Virginia. The Republicans in the Virginia Senate put forward a law banning the non-existent sanctuary cities in Virginia, then voted against their own bill in sufficient numbers to create a tie that Northam had to break in his role as Lt. Governor. It was a slight twist on a big play in the recent GOP state level playbook: a solution in search of a problem.
After years of observation – and hopefully learning something from it – I am a proponent of negative advertising because it is effective. In my lifetime I can only remember two presidential elections where people actually were more motivated to vote for a candidate (Kennedy in 1960 and Obama in 2008) than they were motivated to vote against a candidate. School Board and County Commission meetings go largely unattended unless the masses are angry over something; they seldom show up to support an issue. In 2017 Virginia is carrying negative politics to its extreme! Regardless of who wins their consultants will tell future clients that they won the race via negative ads. The problem is that both sides went so negative that nothing will be learned by the outcome. It’s like two high school basketball teams both scoring over 100 points and then saying the fast break won the game.
Another issue that Gillespie and the Republicans have exploited is that of confederate monuments; or as they call it heritage. This is a very thinly veiled playing of the race card to promote the turnout of racists who disproportionately vote Republican. If you are trying to predict the outcome as results come in I suggest you look at turnout in Southern Virginia. If it is high the night could be a very good one for Republicans. They learned Trump’s 2016 lesson of pandering to racists very well and are trying to cash in on it.
Control of the Governor’s mansion in Richmond is a big deal. What we will “learn” from the results in Virginia tonight is not.
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