Analysis: How Georgia got to Election Day

How the governor's race produced choices many Georgians find unappealing

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- As neighbors munched fried chicken at a recent Tybee Island gathering, talk turned to Tuesday's election for governor.

Some people at the picnic table groaned and rolled their eyes as they took turns dissecting the choices.

No one voiced enthusiasm for Republican Nathan Deal or Democrat Roy Barnes or seemed to know much about Libertarian John Monds.

 

"I don't think much of either Deal or Barnes," Eleanor Sofa, one of the neighbors, said Thursday. "If I had my choice, it would be none of the above."

Such sentiments seem widespread.

A Rasmussen Reports poll recently found 53 percent of voters viewed Barnes unfavorably; 48 percent felt that way about Deal. Fewer liked Monds than not, but nearly half said they knew too little about him to have an opinion.

The question heard at the Tybee gathering and elsewhere: How did we get into this mess?

Some experts say Barnes was nominated - even though so many people dislike him - because most of those who do aren't Democrats.

Deal, they add, is the GOP nominee because his opponents didn't take his prospects seriously enough to target him for close scrutiny

Others cite the steady drumbeat of negative TV ads that started before the Republican primary.

Lastly, some observers say, voters are just in an unusually foul mood this year.

"What we're hearing," said Robert Eisinger, a Savannah College of Art and Design political science professor, "is that all politicians are bad.

"So if you ask people about a candidate, they say they don't like him. Neither Deal nor Barnes are exemplary public servants, so it's no surprise they aren't beloved."


The 800-pound gorilla

Barnes had six opponents - but no serious opposition - in the Democratic primary.

As the former governor, he was easily the best-known candidate in either party, and had raised almost $5 million by June 30.

Noting voters had rejected his 2002 re-election bid, some Democrats warned he might face trouble in the general election.

But you can't beat somebody with nobody, which was apparently the way many Democratic voters viewed the rest of the field.

Democrats saw Barnes as their best bet to retake the governorship, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock.

"He was the 800-pound gorilla in the primary," said Mark Rountree, a Duluth-based political consultant who works mostly with Republicans.

But a problem lurked below the surface, said Emory University political science professor Merle Black.

Polls show Democrats represent barely a third of voters likely to cast ballots Tuesday, Black said.

"Barnes won a very large majority in a party that clearly is the minority in Georgia," he said.

Meanwhile, many among Republicans and independents remember his first term and don't want a second one, Black said.

"There is a hangover from his days as governor," he added.

 

 

 

 

 

The 'paper gorilla'

In contrast, Rountree said, there was no GOP "800-pound gorilla" in the seven-way Republican race.

Instead, he said, there was a "paper gorilla" - state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine.

A publicity hound, Oxendine had held his job for 15 years and was by far the best-known GOP candidate - and the most prolific fundraiser

He led in all polls until about two weeks before the July 20 primary.

But Oxendine was never the favorite of worker-bee GOP activists who help turn out votes.

And what began as a trickle of ethics allegations eventually gushed into a torrent.

Deal, too, faced ethics investigations stemming from his previous service in Congress, but clung to third place in the polls.

Black and others say he would have lost if revelations about his finances and other ethics issues had surfaced before the primary.

"He never really was thoroughly vetted because no one thought he had much of a chance," Rountree said.

After Oxendine's support imploded shortly before the primary, Deal edged out former Savannah state Sen. Eric Johnson for second place.

That won Deal a spot in an Aug. 10 runoff against Karen Handel. The former secretary of state was favored; after all, she'd led by 11 percentage points on July 20.

But she owed that in part to having repeatedly portrayed Oxendine, Deal and Johnson as crooks. Many of their supporters shunned her and lined up behind Deal, who won the runoff by less than half of 1 percent.

"Given what we now know about Deal," said UGA's Bullock, "I think Handel and Johnson probably are kicking themselves for not having spent more on opposition research."

 

Mud, mud, mud

But opposition research always has been a Barnes strong suit, and the stage was set for a tough tussle.

Deal had emerged from the primary a little ahead in the polls, but battered by Handel's ethics-related charges - and vulnerable.

Barnes suspected - correctly - that Deal and his GOP allies would hit him hard, so he attacked first with a series of biting 30-second TV spots.

Experts think that was almost inevitable.

"The candidate who's trailing has to do something to pull the frontrunner down," said Emory's Black.

The Barnes offensive widened its focus when news about Deal's financial woes began to break.

By then, Deal, who had no choice but to hit back and planned to attack Barnes anyway, did so - and with a vengeance.

More than anything else, he tried to tie Barnes to President Barack Obama, whom polls show is a political albatross in Georgia.

So it went, week after week.

"They both had baggage and used each other's to the max," said Beth Schapiro, an Atlanta-based consultant who usually works with Democrats.

Bullock agreed, calling the crossfire of ads the nastiest ever in a Georgia gubernatorial election.

It worked, sort of.

As the fall wore on, polls showed already substantial negative perceptions about both candidates rising.

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Polls: Mud sticks

"People say they don't like negative advertising," Schapiro said, "but the reality is that it influences voters."

In last week's SurveyUSA poll, 37 percent of Barnes' backers and 43 percent of Deal's said ads had "a major impact" on their views.

If so, SCAD's Eisinger insists, it's because voters already were prepared to think the worst of both candidates.

But - for whatever reason - Tuesday's choices apparently remain unappealing to about half the voters. They see two candidates as flawed and know little about the third.

At least some are opting for the latter - Libertarian Monds.

Speculation persists he might siphon off enough votes Tuesday to prevent either Deal or Barnes from exceeding 50 percent.

That would trigger a Nov. 30 runoff.

"I usually vote Republican," said Betty Beeson, one of the Tybee Islanders who talked politics with her neighbors. "But I'm so fed up with both of them that I'm going to vote for Monds.

"We need to send a message. If enough people do, maybe the politicians will figure out we're mad as hell and start to take us seriously."

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