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ND community eyes Congressional races

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Dodging the mud flying between candidates, voters nationwide head to the polls today to potentially return majority power to the Democrats in Congress.

Notre Dame students, meanwhile, are anticipating the results from their home states – as well as from the local contest in Indiana’s Second Congressional District between incumbent Chris Chocola and two-time Notre Dame alum Joe Donnelly.

Nearly everyone agrees there’s one issue looming highest in voters’ minds: the war in Iraq.

“It’s pretty obvious that it’s Iraq, and the general discomfort of many Americans with the continual stream of bad news they get about the war, that seems to be an overriding issue as we go into [today], ” said political science professor Peri Arnold.

Mike McKenna, who coordinated a Notre Dame “Rock the Vote” campaign that registered about 350 voters and delivered absentee ballots to 300 more, thinks such discontent runs the political gamut.

“So many Americans, whether Democrat, Republican, Independent or Libertarian, are unsatisfied with the current situation in Iraq,” he said. “And the fact is that in recent months, the death toll is higher than when we first went to Iraq – it’s increasing.”

Likening an election campaign to a wrestling match, Arnold said Democrats and Republicans define issues in their own ways.

“Republicans would have it that this is a very good economy. They would like that story to be the one voters pay attention to,” he said. “Democrats would like to respond and say middle-class incomes haven’t grown significantly, in terms of real income.

“In some sense,” he said, “you can think of it as a battle over whose definition gets more attention from voters.”

Despite the many issues – from Iraq to the economy to immigration – American Studies professor Jack Colwell says the election comes down to President George W. Bush.

“Voters are determining the direction of the country,” said Colwell, who writes a political column for the South Bend Tribune. “Should Bush have a Congress that would support him, or a Democratic House?”

Freshman Kristofer Trujillo is one of the voters who has that determining power, but he’s not voting this year – obtaining an Illinois absentee ballot requires in-person registration, which he didn’t have the opportunity to do. There’s another aspect of the election that’s bothering him: the rampant negative campaigning.

“It turns you off from trying to care about the issues when all you hear is a person explaining why another’s bad rather than formulating a plan for themselves, and explaining what they can provide for the community,” he said.

But the experts concur that negative advertising is a necessary evil.

“It’s negative ads that have impact and bring about change,” Colwell said. “That’s why they’re used nationwide.”

While negative ads can occasionally sour voters from going to the polls at all, Arnold said, they carry information that can occasionally prove seriously detrimental to candidates like Harold Ford, Tennessee’s Democratic candidate for Congress. A recent ad questioning Ford’s morals depicted an attractive white woman asking Ford to “Call me.”

“It’s very nasty, but it’s doing something: it’s reminding voters in a southern state that this Democratic nominee is black. That works in favor of white Republicans,” Arnold said. “Harold Ford had been running a very good race, what had been a very tight race. After that [ad] he’s fallen about 12 points behind. I don’t think it’s just the ad, but it’s part of the effect that’s led to his falling behind.”

As Notre Dame College Republicans Vice President Josh Kempf knows, those are the ads that stick.

On behalf of Chocola, Kempf and other College Republicans have been canvassing and working at a phone bank where threatening posters of potential Senate Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and motivational Bush quotes line the walls. When Chocola calls undecided voters, he asks them to recall negative ads they’ve seen, Kempf said. Then he asks them to recall positive ones – and they seldom can, Kempf said.

“Chocola says, ‘See? That’s what you notice. That’s what you remember,'” Kempf said. “I don’t think anybody likes them, but that’s a fact.”

Helen Adeosun, Notre Dame College Democrats co-president, said the College Democrats have been active in canvassing and phoning for Donnelly’s campaign, especially since the National College Democrats identified the 2006 election as momentous.

“In more than a decade, there’s never been a greater sweeping change than the one that could take place [today],” she said.