Turnout in Virginia's gubernatorial election appeared to be higher than some predictions, countering conventional wisdom that says negative campaigns depress voter participation.
Originally forecast to have historically low turnout, the steady stream of voters entering Virginia polling centers Tuesday suggested the contentious gubernatorial race did not necessarily deter voters.
"The fact that it's a little higher than expected, I think this election might show two things: Negative campaigns can have an impact on results, and it doesn't necessarily depress the turnout," said Bob Holsworth, a former Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics. "The constant barrage reminded people there's an election today."
Well before the traditional Labor Day start to the campaign season, Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II were launching negative ads at one another, and the televised swipes only increased thereafter.
But if voters were fatigued, it didn't show when the polls opened Tuesday. By mid-morning at the Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology in Alexandria, about 600 people had voted, a poll volunteer said, which is a surprisingly large high number given the nonpresidential year.
"I don't know the cause, but it may be that it's not just an election with a bunch of delegates," he said.
Walking out of the center, 63-year-old Gilbert Teasley said he tries to vote on every Election Day, "but especially this one I thought was really important."
"McAuliffe might not be the best candidate, but he can kind of get us headed in the right direction," he added.
Having to choose between the more palatable of two candidates could actually be a reason for a boost in voter participation, suggested Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University.
"If you think the one person is really bad, you're going to be out there voting for the lesser of two evils," he said. "It's a common misperception that negative campaigns drive voting participation down. Oftentimes it's quite the opposite. Negative campaigns may drive up the intensity of opposition to one of the candidates and actually end up vastly increasing turnouts."
The perception that negative campaigns could keep voters at bay got its start in the 1980s, said Quentin Kidd, the director of Christopher Newport University's Wason Center for Public Policy,
"Negative campaigns via television first became a big force in politics and people noticed that people got depressed and turned-off on politics," he said. "They complained how nasty it is. There were a couple of elections where the turnout was lower than expected and it was attributed to negative campaigns."
But that notion might not be accurate anymore, Mr. Kidd said. A negative campaign can actually energize a candidate's supporters.
"It's almost like 'Oh, yeah, good hit. I don't like that guy either,' " Mr. Kidd said. "I think we've just got a more sophisticated view of what a negative campaign can do."
The candidates' sparring might have been what drove so many voters to the polls, Mr. Rozell said, because in some cases when a race isn't exciting, the result can be low participation.
"It's not whether campaigns are positive or negative, it's the intensity of feelings voters have in one direction or another," Mr. Rozell said. "You don't need to get a positive reason to go vote, you just need a reason to vote."
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