The Devil Is In The Details

It might have escaped some people’s notice, but we’re having more than a presidential election this November. A third of the Senate and the entire House is also up for grabs, and those races tend to get lost in the limelight of the first wide-open presidential race (with neither the sitting president or vice-president on the ticket) since 1952.

Here in New Hampshire, we have a rather hotly contested Senate race. It’s kind of a rerun of 2002, with freshman Senator John E. Sununu (R) facing former governor Jeanne Shaheen (D). Last time, it was Representative Sununu against sitting Governor Shaheen, and Sununu squeaked it out.

As I watch (and especially listen) to the ad wars between these two, I sometimes get confused about whether I’m watching their ads or ads for McCain and Obama. The similarities are remarkable.

In both cases, the main thrust of the Democrats’ ads is to tie their opponent to President Bush. I’ve reached the point where I don’t remember if Sununu and McCain have voted with Bush 90% of the time, 95% of the time, or 950% of the time — it all blurs together. And with all the photos shown of McCain and Sununu with Bush, I’m wondering how the three of them spent enough time apart to cast any votes at all.

Meanwhile, about half the Republicans’ ads are similarly themed. They talk about what their guy has done in their career, citing specific examples of accomplishments (or, in Sununu’s cases, tried but failed — he was one of the sponsors of a bill to regulate and possibly save Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae). They also talk about things their opponent has done, in specific detail, that they think show why their rival should not be elected.

The part where the ads differ is based on the nature of their opponents. McCain hammers on Obama’s inexperience and lack of any record of accomplishments — essentially saying, “he talks a good game, but he’s never ever once been shown to actually do what he promises” — while Shaheen was New Hampshire’s governor for six years, and has an actual record of things for Sununu to point to. And has he ever.

It’s all a matter of style, and how much respect the candidates in question have for voters. The Democrats seem to think that too many details run the risk of confusing or boring the voters, so they don’t trot out specific accusations and examples of how their opponent is the wrong choice. The Republicans don’t seem worried about that; they name names and list dates and give all kinds of specifics on what their opponents have done, and trust that the voters will be sharp enough to understand the message they’re being given.

The cynic in me thinks the Democrats might have it right. That simply saying that the Republican is “more Bush” is sufficient — that the voters won’t ask “OK, so he voted with Bush a whole bunch of times. Could you tell us a few of those votes that were so bad?” Both McCain and Sununu have, on several occasions, disagreed with Bush on major issues — and won compromises from the president. (McCain on the Iraq war strategy and Sununu on the renewal of the Patriot Act, just to name two examples.) They’re hardly Bushbots, but danged few people, it seems, are willing to think things through enough to go beyond “95%? There have to be at least some bad votes in there!”

That cynic also thinks that a lot of voters will get the MEGO reflex (My Eyes Glaze Over) when they hear specifics about the Democrats’ records — such as Obama on the Born Alive abortion act and Shaheen’s failure to protect New Hampshirites from Providian’s ravages, just to name two.

But I don’t like to be too cynical when it comes to the American people. I like to think that talking down to voters, treating them like simpletons, is a bad strategy that seldom works. I like to think that ads that talk about specific details and policies and actions will be more persuasive, more compelling than generic smears and vague innuendos.

I hope my cynic is wrong, but far too often he’s been proven right.

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