06 Nov

At least the election has left our TV screens

The weekend before election day can drive you away from your television, even if you’ve been waiting a year to see the Oregon football team resume its conversation with Stanford. The 30-second campaign ads come at you in waves, like the Oregon defense, and not even the leftover Halloween candy can provide enough strength for the ordeal.

Traditionally, we are urged to endure the experience as a part of citizenship, keeping ourselves open to the possibly of learning something that might actually affect our votes. Watching grainy, black-and-white pictures of the other candidate, with a breathy, terrified voice-over, is now part of an American’s duty.

But it can be particularly aggravating in a mail ballot state, where you might have to watch the last desperate burst of frenzied ads although you’ve already voted. Considering that election officials know quickly who has and hasn’t voted – letting parties send out canvassers to hunt down those who haven’t yet – it doesn’t seem beyond current technology to devise a video chip that could block the ads, issued to those who have already cast their ballots.

It would greatly encourage voting.

But even for those Oregonians smug in the satisfaction of having already folded their vote into its security envelope and sent it off, last weekend’s campaign ads provided some enlightenment about the state races. Not necessarily about the candidates’ positions on issues – Oregon is, after all, the only place where our major state races hung on three stalking complaints about a Senate candidate and the governor’s fiancée – but about how the races were seen.

Over the course of the campaign, Gov. John Kitzhaber and Sen. Jeff Merkley swapped ad approaches, as their races developed differently.

Throughout summer and September, Merkley’s ads pounded GOP candidate Monica Wehby – that’s her in black and white in the middle of the screen – for ads supporting her sponsored by the Koch brothers’ political action committee, for the plagiarism issues about her policy statements, for her economic positions. But into October, as it seemed that Wehby could not get within single digits of Merkley in polling, Merkley shifted to warm, fuzzy ads about himself, his roots in Oregon and the ping-pong table in his garage.

Candidates often say they want to end their campaigns on a positive message instead of a negative note. But they don’t usually do it unless by then they’re fairly confident of the outcome.

Kitzhaber’s experience was just the opposite. As he was seemingly on a minimally challenged path to a fourth term, his ads were positive and personal, from a spring ad featuring close-ups of his cowboy boots and rodeo-sized belt buckle to a September spot when he appeared in front of lovely Oregon landscapes and happy Oregon citizens.

But by last weekend, after repeated stories about the background and activities of his fiancée Cylvia Hayes looked to tighten the race, Kitzhaber’s closing TV ads were different. There was his Republican opponent Dennis Richardson – in color, but grainy – together with a selection of Richardson’s quotes about gays, abortion and global warming.

As underdogs, Wehby and Richardson, of course, have been on the attack all the time.

Still, the weekend brought another message. While Oregon had multiple servings of attack ads as the election approached, states with more tightly contested elections have been served an endless buffet. The North Carolina Senate race has brought in an estimated $111 million. So much time has been bought for the Alaska Senate race that when the governor wanted to buy some late TV time for his re-election effort, there wasn’t any available.

(On the other hand, 30 seconds on KUBD Ketchikan is not that expensive.)

Many of the ads in those states are run by independent spending campaigns, whose ads are overwhelmingly negative, and whose money sources may not be revealed. In Oregon, an independent political action committee spent $3 million for Wehby in August, but decided to focus on other states in the fall.

So last weekend, there was a message in Oregon not seeing as many ads as North Carolina, or Iowa, or Colorado. Unlike many other states, we had a lot of TV spots about measures, but it’s hard to get too personally negative about a measure.

So the way to avoid a weekend – or a month, or many months – of attack ads is not to have closely contested elections, which doesn’t seem like the answer, either.

At any rate, this round is now over.

We now return your television to its regularly scheduled advertising.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 11/2/14.

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