The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Friday, September 30, 2005

Debate hope dwindles for Russ Potts; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER — A poll released Friday might mark the beginning of the end for “Operation Upset.”

But it’s not over just yet, according to the independent gubernatorial campaign of H. Russell Potts Jr.

The Rasmussen Research poll found Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine tied at 45 percent, with Potts at 5 percent.

The poll all but guarantees that the Winchester state senator won’t be included in the only televised, statewide debate, set for Oct. 9.

The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics set a 15 percent threshold for participation.

Only three polling firms have been regularly tracking the Virginia gubernatorial race.

With Rasmussen’s poll already in and no new poll from Mason-Dixon Polling and Research until after the debate, it’s unlikely that the independent candidate will get the two surveys needed to put him on the stage.

“Barring a major surprise, [Potts] will not be included in the televised debate scheduled for October,” pollster Scott Rasmussen said.

“I wouldn’t count on that,” said Tom D’Amore, Potts’ top political consultant. “It isn’t over till it’s over, and that’s not just bravado.

“We think we have earned a place” on the stage, he said. “We [don’t] think the 15 percent threshold makes any sense, and we didn’t agree to it or adhere to it. We think it borders on un-American.”

Potts’ campaign does have a trifecta of bad trends — low name recognition, a comparatively small bank account and no party affiliation, said Virginia Tech political scientist Craig Brians.

With less than $1 million raised at the Sept. 1 reporting deadline and a name recognized by less than 50 percent of voters according to Mason-Dixon, Potts has a tough row to hoe.

Candidates can overcome low name recognition with money or party affiliation. They can beat not having a party affiliation with money or high name recognition.

Just look at Ross Perot, Brians said.

“[Perot] was able to crack into double digits … by spending millions and millions of his own dollars,” he said.

Fame and a party letter beside the candidate’s name on the ballot can trump having poor fundraising, as people who don’t know the candidate vote party lines.

Regardless of the cause, the trend doesn’t appear to be good, according to Bill Shendow, director of the Marsh Institute at Shenandoah University.

“He’s actually losing some support,” he said. “Some people are saying it will be a lost vote.”

But at this late date, low name recognition without the massive financial resources to get the candidate’s name on the airwaves is the kiss of death for a campaign, Brians said.

That is, “unless one of the other two [other] candidates is really, really, really incompetent,” he said.

It’s simply hard to get people to donate when they don’t know who you are, Shendow said, and it’s hard to get noticed when

you can’t buy airtime.

“It’s kind of like Catch-22,” he said. An additional year of speeches and travel may have helped the Winchester native, who announced his campaign in February.

Kaine and Kilgore were acting like candidates long before they announced their candidacies.

“That might have helped him somewhat to be more of a known quantity,” Shendow said.

Getting into the debate would have been a boon to Potts’ campaign — a chance to present himself to a statewide audience and go after both of his opponents.

The 15 percent standard seems “arbitrary,” he said. But “I’m sure the organizers needed to set some kind of threshold.”

As always, there’s a chance that the growing conventional wisdom is wrong, according to Brians.

Polling at the state level is difficult to get right, Brians said, because it’s tough to predict who is going to show up at the polls on Nov. 8 and who won’t.

“There tend to be a lot of sampling problems with [lower-level polls],” he said. “National polls are generally much more accurate.”

But then again, “polls can be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

“Let’s say [Potts] really does” have a large, un-polled base of support.

“There’s no way to get at that number, because the poll is only a sample,” Brians said.

“If the poll disallows him to participate in his best source of publicity,” it could draw away fundraising, which would stifle additional advertising.

From there, things spiral downward toward the inaccurate poll number.

Potts addressed his candidacy’s viability during a debate with Kaine on WTOP radio Friday morning.

“The only way in the world you ever waste or throw your vote away is when you go in behind that curtain and you vote for somebody you don’t think is the best candidate for the job,” Potts said.

Kaine and Kilgore are spending millions, but that will work against them.

“This governor’s job is not for sale at any price,” he said. “I believe sincerely that voters in Virginia are going to reflect on this as we get closer to the polls.”

“The magic number is 34 [percent], and oh yes, we can win,” he said.