Campaign Spending Could Sway Indiana Senate Race
By Brandon Smith
Indiana’s U.S. Senate race is one of the tightest in the country – most polls throughout the campaign have the difference between Democrat Joe Donnelly and Republican Richard Mourdock within the margin of error -- a statistical tie.
Many analysts say the outcome could determine which party controls the Senate. Those factors have created an ad blitz in the state from groups outside the two campaigns.
While ads for Richard Mourdock or Joe Donnelly have dominated the airwaves, it is often not an ad from one of the candidates. Independent spending groups, not affiliated with the Mourdock or Donnelly campaigns, have spent more than $8 million this election cycle.
Donnelly said that’s not a good thing.
“I don’t think any of these groups should be here,” Donnelly said. “This should be an Indiana election about the people of Indiana and that’s all I focus on like a laser every single day.”
Mourdock said the huge influx of outside money has become the new normal for key races.
“It does change the tenor of a race,” Mourdock said. “In many ways, the money that the candidates themselves raise is no longer as significant as what’s coming in from the outside.”
As important as the amount of outside ads is the message of those ads.
Independent expenditure groups are not allowed to coordinate messages with campaigns.
“We find out each day as the filings are posted who’s bought advertising time: who they are, where they are, where they’re buying ads,” Mourdock said. “Then we hold our breath each morning waiting to see what the commercial is they’re airing.”
While the specifics of the message vary based on the group, the tone is generally the same.
Indiana University political scientist Marjorie Hershey said outside ads can play a vital role in campaigns by allowing the candidates themselves to avoid going sharply negative. She said that is important because voters often judge a candidate the way they judge a new neighbor.
“You know, do they seem nice? Do they seem competent? Do they seem like somebody whom you’d be interested in talking with and having a conversation with?” Hershey said.
The conservative group, Club for Growth has spent more than a million dollars in Indiana since the primary. Its president, former Indiana Congressman Chris Chocola, said while some people may complain about negativity in ads, attacks work.
“People may say they get kind of sick of it but you know what?” Chocola said. “They also can repeat the message; they also can have an opinion that’s formed in part because they get information from those ads.”
State Democratic Party chair Dan Parker said the messaging of outside ads also focuses on a different voting block.
“I think a lot of the ads that are on TV now are really meant to sort of stoke up the two bases but the candidates’ messages are really geared towards those folks in the middle,” Parker said.
Hershey said negative, outside ads can have a real impact on a race – especially if they are among the first messaging an undecided voter hears.
“When they come relatively early or before a voter has made up his or her mind, then they tend to be pretty motivating,” Hershey said.
Parker said his concern is not how many of these ads are on the air, but that they may turn voters off from the political process.
“The worry I have is not so much what the message that voters are getting, it’s if they get too much of it, will they just not vote at all,” Parker said.
But Chocola said voter fatigue is not something he worries about.
“If you get to the point of diminishing return, it’s better than not getting the information,” Chocola said.
Both candidates say they do not rely on the messages outside ads convey, preferring instead to craft their own. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joe Donnelly and Richard Mourdock share the same opinion of their own ads and their opponent’s – each of them say they are honest while their opponent is not.
Julia Vaughn is the policy director for the advocacy group, Common Cause Indiana. She said she would love to see a type of Federal Trade Commission for political ads that calls out candidates for untrue statements. But Vaughn said in the absence of that, candidates have the duty to self-police.
“And that’s what’s really disappointing is that both of them are all too willing to get down in the mud and engage in really negative campaigns that really stretch the bounds of truthfulness,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn said negative ads and campaigns like that are driving down voter participation.
“A whole bunch of citizens are just saying, ‘I don’t even want to sully myself by voting,’ or you know that that’s somehow an endorsement of this ugliness, of this dishonesty,” Vaughn said.
But political analyst Ed Feigenbaum said it is not the place of an organization or group to determine honesty in campaigns.
“We don’t necessarily want anyone being the arbiter of what’s truthful, what’s not, what’s appropriate, what’s not,” Feigenbaum said. “That’s really for the voters to judge.”
Hershey said voters, who can often find as many as 70 races on a single ballot, do not have that ability to fact-check the statements of every candidate.
“We just can’t expect normal people, who have normal lives to research two times 70 candidates,” Hershey said. “That’s just not realistic.”
Still, Hershey and Feigenbaum say if an ad is significantly out of the bounds of honesty, voters will often deliver a message to that candidate at the ballot box.
Both candidates say they do not rely on the messages outside ads convey, preferring instead to craft their own. Still, in the era of Super PACs, the wait-and-see of what political messages will contain is now as much an activity for candidates as it is for voters.