This has been a mild hurricane season for Louisiana, but the political storm season is about to unleash a torrent of advertising — positive and negative — upon an electorate that has yet to focus on the race.
This governor's race has been the strangest in memory. The candidates collectively have raised more than $15 million (including super PAC money), but with less than eight weeks to go before the Oct. 24 primary they have spent barely 10 percent of that amount. That changes this week, which means the 2015 race for governor will be a sprint, not a marathon.
There are two reasons for that, says LSU pollster Dr. Michael Henderson: the vast majority of voters are still not paying attention to the race; and the candidates have yet to start spending the kind of money that makes voters take notice.
Henderson, who directs the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, has taken two statewide surveys this year that show roughly 70 percent of Louisiana voters are not yet engaged. "In most voters' minds, this election is still far off, even though people who follow politics closely think it's right around the corner," he says. "Think about how people go through day-to-day life: They're not thinking about elections and politics; they devote their attention to things that are most pressing to them at the time."
Henderson says voters' slowness to get involved relates "both to the supply side and to the demand side" of the campaign. Voters will start paying attention when they see the election as a pressing concern — and when information (read: campaign advertising) is made abundant so it can be attained easily and cheaply.
"If there were lots of campaign activity now, they would pay more attention," Henderson says. "Voters do respond to campaign activity, even if they are not swayed one way or another by the message. Once we see a high-octane campaign with lots of energy, with candidates on TV every day, they will pay more attention."
For some of the candidates, it's a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Three of them — Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and state Rep. John Bel Edwards — are still not well-known compared to U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who has almost universal name recognition. Vitter also has more money (counting super PAC money) than the other three combined. The senator thus has been able to save his resources until relatively late in the game (qualifying is Sept. 8-10). Vitter's campaign began buying huge chunks of television time last week, and his ads are likely to become more prevalent in the final six weeks of the primary campaign.
"If you're a less-well-known candidate, you have to work harder to get your name out there," Henderson says, "but if you've got limited resources, you're more likely to get people's attention by waiting until they are paying attention."
That adds a catch-22 for the candidates with less cash. By waiting until now to dump their limited resources into the race, they're also going to struggle for voters' attention in the face of Vitter's blitzkrieg — which is exactly how Vitter was hoping the race would shape up.