For political races running neck in neck, the final 96 hours of a campaign can be some of the most important. Although it may be hard for the political diehards to believe, polling shows that 5 to 10 percent of the electorate only begins to pay attention to the election, the candidates and the issues in the final week of the election. Although media and politicos think everyone has been kept up to date throughout the cycle, analysts say those voters who are late to the party can make a difference in races that are on the margin in the final week.
Enter the 4th Congressional District high-profile race in Colorado between Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and her Democratic challenger Betsy Markey, where limited polling has shown Markey, a never-elected former Senate staffer, ahead of Musgrave by a marginal lead. The 4th, where voter registration numbers favor Republicans by 13 percent and where unaffiliated voters have been making inroads, seems the perfect illustration of a race too tight to call in the final week and thus, a race where those last-minute voters could come into play.
“There really are quite a few people who make up their minds at the last moments of the campaign, both whether or not to vote as well as who to vote for,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “Depending on the poll, usually that margin is in the 5 to 10 percent range, and the people in that (range) are likely to be less politically sophisticated and less likely to be a strong partisan than the ‘normal’ voter.”
Saunders, who has been following the 4th CD race, said generally the more “sophisticated” voters and those who have a certain degree of allegiance to a party or candidate made up their minds long ago and, in Colorado, are more likely to take advantage of mail balloting and early voting before Election Day. Despite many struggling to believe that any segment of voters could have tuned the election out until the final week with all the ads and mailers out there, Saunders said campaigns from the highest levels down to the state races know the impact these last-minute voters can have on an election.
“Political junkies don’t always understand this, but the campaigns do,” Saunders said. “Some people are just now tuning in and making up their mind. Hence why both McCain and Obama have saved a lot of his powder for this last week — Obama with the half hour (paid TV commercial), the massive ad buys over the next few days and McCain with his late changes and strategic moves.”
What this means for both 4th CD campaigns during the final 96 hours is an extended effort to reach voters by enhancing the number of volunteers knocking on doors or calling friends, more political television ads and, of course, campaign mailings. Both the Musgrave and Markey campaigns have been sending mailers to targeted voters in the geographically huge district, which includes northern Colorado and the eastern plains, that depict the other as bad for America. Both campaigns have run their fair share of negative advertisements on TV. But, with 96 hours remaining, Markey is getting a lot of support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has reserved $300,000 in commercial airtime on Denver television stations for the last week of the election to run its newest attack ad against Musgrave, and which has sent a number of anti-Musgrave mailers.
The Republican National Congressional Committee has spent $869,000 in the race, primarily attacking Markey, but announced last week that it was canceling plans to advertise during the final week of the election in the 4th. The move, which caught many off guard, was viewed as a sign that Musgrave’s polling is not high enough to justify spending the NRCC’s limited funds in Colorado when there are other incumbents nationwide the party must protect. Musgrave’s campaign, which did not return a request for an interview, began airing a new attack ad against Markey in recent days that continues to paint her as a corrupt official who used her position in Sen. Ken Salazar’s office to increase the number of government contracts her family business, Syscom Systems, received.
With the DCCC airing negative attack ads against Musgrave, the Markey campaign has invested in a biographical ad that will run throughout the district in the final 96 hours depicting Markey has a small-business owner and representative of the change America wants in politics.
“We started this campaign out positive, and we had hoped to be able to take approach for a good portion of the campaign but Marilyn went negative almost immediately, and one thing that we were not willing to do this year is not respond to that,” Markey campaign manager Anne Caprara said. “People do get sick of the back and forth, particularly during this election cycle … and we believe after so many negative attacks people begin to tune out. That is one of the reason we decided to close our campaign out with a more positive ad, and hopefully that will carry us through to Election Day.”
Well, sort of. In addition to the biographical ad, the Markey campaign is also airing another negative ad in response to Musgrave’s latest attack, which shows an actor who resembles Markey hooked up to a lie detector as she fails to answer questions about Syscom’s government contracts.
Caprara said Markey will spend the remaining 96 hours of the election criss-crossing Larimer and Weld counties with some stops in Longmont and Fort Morgan — Musgrave’s hometown. Weld County, home of Greeley and many new unaffiliated voters, will be a major focus for Markey.
“We knew from the beginning and we know in the end that Weld County is the key swing county in the district,” Caprara said. “We have been doing everything that we can to drive up support there. As we go down the line there has been a lot of competition for attention there — we have Barack Obama, we have Mark Udall, we have local races to contend with — but we have been encouraged by her ability to get out there and talk with voters and knock on doors.”
Despite the best efforts by both campaigns, other political observers said they are unsure how much of an impact the few remaining undecided voters will have, but cautioned against ignoring them altogether. Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer said with only a few remaining days, the campaigns should focus their efforts to get their supporters to the polls and to remind people to turn in their mail ballots.
“It is my sense that there may be a little room for a party to improve its Election Day numbers, but not a lot,” Straayer said. “But in this election, with the fever pitch so high and so much mail and early voting, the late drives could matter only in the very closest of elections.”