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Deal may shake off his money problems

ATLANTA --- Is there anything that could dissuade voters determined to elect Republican Nathan Deal Georgia's next governor?

That must be going through the minds of Democrats across the state and even in the war rooms of the Democratic Governors Association which reportedly pumped $1 million into ads on his behalf.

And the Barnes ads have been vicious, attacking Deal for lax reporting of financial affairs and for using his congressional office for personal gain.

It hasn't been just paid advertising that's tarred Deal. Reports by multiple news organizations have brought out various instances of the infractions noted in the ads.

Topping it all were revelations that Deal is on the hook for loans used for a failed sporting-goods store owned by his daughter and her husband.

The news reports say Deal didn't adequately report the loans and the extent of his financial troubles when he filed forms required by law of all candidates.

Yet, in the face of all the allegations, ads and bad news, Deal holds an 8-point lead over Barnes in the latest public poll, this from InsiderAdvantage. Deal's 45-37 lead, with Libertarian John Monds' 5 percent, is enough to win without a runoff if the 13 percent undecided split in proportion to the current standings or merely stay home.

Political veterans recognize several factors are at play.

First, it's just a tough year for Democrats, and Barnes may not be able to avoid that, despite skipping town when President Barack Obama visited last month.

Second, Georgia is essentially a red state. Technically, it has remained purple as long as the labor commissioner, attorney general and agriculture commissioner posts were held by Democrats elected statewide, but polls show the GOP winning all statewide races this year.

Third, Barnes is himself as much of a liability as he is an asset.

Having served as governor and continuing to be active with party politics and headline-producing legal cases, he has almost 100 percent name ID.

That also means everyone has an opinion of him, so there is little opportunity for his campaign to use its considerable skill to redefine him.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen reveals that 44 percent of people surveyed have a favorable view of the former governor, but a chilling 50 percent have an unfavorable view.

As mothers everywhere have warned, it's impossible to make a new first impression.

That's why the Barnes ads attacked Deal, because changing the minds of people who already have an opinion about Barnes is nearly undoable.

As evidence, consider that Barnes has hovered in the range of 39-43 percent in every poll, not even gaining any ground when Deal slipped.

When Deal's support departed, it turned to undecided rather than leaning toward Barnes.

Besides, the instant, telephone polls nowadays run the risk of presenting a snapshot when news is too fresh for voters to have processed.

Often, after having thought through negative news, voters will rationalize it and come back to their original position --- especially if the follow-up reports aren't significantly worse.

That's why the race went from tied two weeks ago and then back to Deal leading last week.

Campaign operatives recognize the pattern and strive to depress turnout for the other guy enough to where their support is overwhelming.

In trying to do that, Barnes faces a fourth challenge. The ethical and financial shortcomings he's accusing Deal of rarely have the potency to sway races.

Failing to disclose financial details strikes folks as a harmless clerical error. Going broke paying off a child's loans is something every parent can envision, and doing it in this economy carries even less of a stigma.

Remember that Christine O'Donnell just won the Republican senatorial nomination in Delaware, and Tom Graves won a special election and then the nomination to Deal's vacant congressional seat in recent months despite similar allegations of financial insolvency and ethical breaches.

People tend to vote based on their own circumstances rather than those of the candidates.

Poor constituencies have elected Rockefellers and Kennedys who were accused of being too rich and out of touch. At the same time, candidates ensnared in messy affairs, sex scandals and even criminal investigations have all won elections.

The question voters weigh is, "Which candidate will affect my life in positive ways?"

It may be that Roy Barnes has come to that realization because he's begun airing ads and holding press conferences about his ideas for the economy.

Voters may never have a more favorable opinion of him, but if they feel both candidates are flawed, they may go for the one who is most likely to solve the No. 1 issue of jobs.

That new strategy could be the change that --- if it's convincing --- ultimately alters the course of the election. It just has a really tall hill to climb.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for Morris News Service. He can be reached at walter.jones or (404) 589-8424.

Web posted on Thursday, October 07, 2010

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