Iowa State University
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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

09-29-06

Contacts:

Dianne Bystrom, Catt Center for Women and Politics, (515) 294-4185, (515) 451-5084 (c), dbystrom@iastate.edu

Steffen Schmidt, Political Science, (515) 294-3825, sws@iastate.edu

Mike Ferlazzo, News Service, (515) 294-8986, ferlazzo@iastate.edu

Tight Iowa gubernatorial race reflects divided nation, say ISU political scientists

AMES, Iowa -- The Iowa gubernatorial race between Democrat Chet Culver and Republican Jim Nussle reflects a state that's divided right down the middle, according to the latest poll showing a statistical dead heat. A pair of Iowa State University political scientists say that makes it part of the nation's great political divide.

A Sept. 10-13 poll, published by The Des Moines Register, showed Nussle and Culver even at 44 percent each, with 10 percent undecided and two percent favoring other candidates.

"It's (the governor's race) too close to call, and getting dirtier by the day," said Steffen Schmidt, University Professor of political science at ISU. "That's exactly where we've ended up as a nation, too -- whether it's the difficulty Congress is having settling on an immigration bill, or dealing with torture of military prisoners. All the polling is either 45-45, or 49-49, or something like that. It's astonishing. I've never seen anything like it in 37 years of being a professional political scientist."

"This is probably the tightest gubernatorial race in Iowa in my 10 years here and, from previous elections, we know anything can happen," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State. "Governor Vilsack was 20 points behind at one time in 1998 and went on to win. This race will remain tight and is indicative of political party affiliations, ideological views, and the political split in Iowa."

Issues that may sway voters

The race features two candidates as sharply divided on the issues as the electorate appears to be on the vote. Many voters have made up their minds, yet Schmidt believes immigration may be one issue that could sway some -- although he's not sure which way. Culver told a Hispanic group that he would push for repeal of the four-year-old law declaring English to be Iowa's official language if elected. Nussle supports the law, and has also proposed tougher immigration laws with a "seize and deport" feature, where any detained illegal immigrant would be quickly removed from the country.

"It (immigration) has become a really huge domestic issue. The position on immigration alienates or attracts in some cases," said Schmidt.

"I actually think the issues that could define the race are reproductive choice and stem-cell research," Bystrom said. "They could be key issues for small groups of voters. Polls show that most Iowans are in the middle on these issues, but the candidates have very different views on those two topics. That could sway some voters."

But because the state and nation are so polarized, specific issues probably won't move the masses. Instead, research shows that negative attack ads -- which have already become abundant on Iowa airwaves during this campaign -- still have the greatest impact. However, those ads are designed not to move voters, but suppress them.

"Research shows that negative ads do annoy people. You may hate them, but they work. The idea is to appeal to your loyal supporters and paint the other guy as the devil," Schmidt noted. "They're also designed to alienate the undecided voter and make them so frustrated and confused that they give up. For politicians, that's the safest way to go because you don't want to have a lot of new voters show up on election day, since you don't know how they'll go."

Race draws nation's attention

Given the closeness of the election and the prominence Iowa plays in the presidential race, the gubernatorial race is drawing great interest and resources nationally. The Democratic Governors Association has pledged $1 million to the race, and the Republican Governors Association has written a check for a half million. Stumping for either candidate also gives presidential hopefuls an opportunity to get some face time in Iowa before making their candidacy official.

But their appearance may not have the desired effect on Iowa voters.

"The reality of it is that Iowa voters really don't care what some senator from someplace, or some celebrity, thinks about the candidate," said Schmidt, who is host of "Dr. Politics" -- a weekly political call-in show on WOI-AM. "In some respects, Iowans resent that and they don't need some out-of-towner to tell them about what they think about Chet Culver or Jim Nussle. As far as influencing voters with someone out of town, that doesn't typically happen."

While Bystrom agrees that it's the candidates -- and not their high-profile supporters -- that have the biggest influence on Iowans, some national figures might make a difference in a close race.

"I think in a tight race like this, a lot of factors help -- and this could be one of them. Do I think a Barak Obama could help a Chet Culver? Yes," she said. "I think it depends on the star power. If these national political figures come to the state to stump for these candidates, people come out to see them and it generates publicity, excitement and turnout. So I think it is helpful."

And with the state's gubernatorial race in a dead heat entering the final month of the campaign, every little bit counts.

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Quote

Schmidt

Steffen Schmidt

"It's (the governor's race) too close to call, and getting dirtier by the day. That's exactly where we've ended up as a nation, too -- whether it's the difficulty Congress is having settling on an immigration bill, or dealing with torture of military prisoners. All the polling is either 45-45, or 49-49, or something like that. It's astonishing. I've never seen anything like it in 37 years of being a professional political scientist."

Steffen Schmidt

Bystrom

Dianne Bystrom

"This is probably the tightest gubernatorial race in Iowa in my 10 years here and, from previous elections, we know anything can happen. Governor Vilsack was 20 points behind at one time in 1998 and went on to win. This race will remain tight and is indicative of political party affiliations, ideological views, and the political split in Iowa."

Dianne Bystrom