This political season the conventional wisdom seems to be that if it isn't the economy, stupid, then it's Iraq and terrorism, stupid. But for a lot of not-so-stupid voters in potentially decisive states, the presidential election could hinge on issues much closer to home.
The media's focus on national themes -- terrorism, Iraq, the economy, health care policy, Social Security, abortion and even the legacy of the Vietnam War -- obscures another reality: A local dispute, statewide referendum or popular statewide candidate for another office in an important battleground could determine the outcome of the presidential contest.
That possibility explains the television ads Sen. John Kerry is running in Nevada. In that battleground state, a plan to make Yucca Mountain the site of a nuclear waste depository for the entire country is on the minds of many voters. The long-planned and long-delayed federal site, located an hour or so from bustling Las Vegas, makes many Nevadans nervous -- and President Bush gave the project a big push in his first term after seeming to promise to do otherwise during the 2000 campaign.
Seeking an opening in a tight race, Kerry has made his opposition to Yucca Mountain a prime selling point in the state. In a recent Kerry ad, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says, "I know who stood with our state, and I know that George Bush broke his word as president, pushing ahead with a nuclear dump that's a danger to Nevadans. John Kerry has stood with us. He's fought Yucca in the past, and as president, he'll stop it once and for all."
Yucca Mountain is a long way from Iraq, but a Research 2000 poll taken in August found that 53 percent of Nevada respondents either agreed or strongly agreed that Yucca Mountain is an important issue when choosing between Bush and Kerry. Some Nevada politicos aren't sure how much weight the issue will ultimately have with voters, who have been fighting it for so long that fatigue may be setting in. By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, voters in a Las Vegas Review Journal poll taken in September said Yucca Mountain wouldn't make them less likely to back Bush for a second term. But if the Yucca issue sways even a fraction of the state's voters who might otherwise vote for Bush, that could be enough to bring Nevada into Kerry's column.
Other swing states have their own particular concerns. In Oregon, where fire scorched the Siskiyou National Forest in 2002, the candidates have sparred over Bush's Healthy Forests Initiative, which attempts to reduce forest fires by allowing the removal of dead trees and limited logging in areas that were previously protected. In an Oct. 14 stop in southern Oregon, Bush hammered Kerry for opposing the measure, which is broadly supported by the timber industry but viewed skeptically by many environmentalists.
And then there are the old chestnuts of Iowa and West Virginia: ethanol and coal, respectively. In a July visit to Iowa, Vice President Cheney said that he and the president would promote increased use of ethanol, a product grown by an influential bloc of Iowa farmers. Kerry had already done lots of talking about ethanol during the Iowa caucuses, which propelled him to the Democratic nomination.
In West Virginia, both camps have expressed support for "clean coal" technology, a favorite project of voters in the coal-producing state. Bush has also highlighted Kerry's opposition to a 1999 bill introduced by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that would have overturned a federal-court ruling barring certain kinds of coal mining. Bush and Cheney are trying to paint Kerry as too sympathetic to environmentalists -- a strategy that worked well for the Republican ticket against Al Gore in 2000.
Not all of the local factors in battleground states have to do with policy, though. Personality can count for a lot -- even if it's not the presidential candidates' personalities. Call it "reverse coattails." Sometimes, it's not a surging presidential candidate who pulls lower-level candidates into office behind him; it's the popular local candidate for the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives or governor who boosts the fortunes of a lackluster presidential candidate.
Most of this year's reverse-coattails talk concerns Colorado Senate candidate Ken Salazar, a Democrat. Most, though not all, polls in the state have shown Salazar a couple of points ahead of brewing magnate Pete Coors, his Republican opponent. Salazar is considered a political moderate, and his rural background has helped him to make a strong showing in what have been generally safe areas for Republicans. Coors, by contrast, is associated with metropolitan Denver.
And that could conceivably help Kerry, who now trails Bush in statewide polls by about five or six percentage points -- less than the nine-point margin Bush chalked up against Gore in 2000. Some analysts have suggested that Salazar's success might be rubbing off on Kerry -- though no one knows for sure.
Other reverse-coattails have to do with turnout. In Wisconsin, one liberal analyst suggested that the presence of Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold and Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin on the ballot in the Madison area could bring more Democrats to the polls and aid Kerry's chances in a state where Bush holds a slight lead. The last time Feingold and Baldwin were on the ballot together, in 1998, Feingold eked out a narrow victory, thanks in part to the strength of Baldwin support among college students and other young voters. (Baldwin is the only openly lesbian member of Congress.) This demographic is especially important in a close race, because young voters and college students generally turn out at lower rates than other voters.
Local ballot issues could also tip the balance. Florida's a perfect example. Florida voters, having experienced the tribulations of 2000, would have been energized to get to the polls in 2004 under any circumstances. But this year's ballot also happens to be chockablock with initiatives that could attract certain kinds of voters to the polls.
Labor unions and other liberal groups secured a spot for a measure to raise the minimum wage to $6.15 and to index it for inflation. Social conservatives want to require parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. Gov. Jeb Bush is asking voters to repeal a previously passed initiative to create a "bullet train" in the state. Gambling foes and animal welfare advocates are teaming up in an odd-bedfellows alliance against a measure that could lead to the establishment of slot machines at race tracks. And physicians have proposed to cap payouts to medical malpractice lawyers, while the lawyers are proposing two ballot initiatives of their own, including one that bars doctors found guilty of malpractice three times from practicing in the state.
"It was clear from the outset that the race in Florida would be about voter mobilization, especially of infrequent voters," says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. "Some of these measures were designed specifically for that purpose."
A flurry of state ballot initiatives on same-sex marriage could also bring religious conservatives to the polls in key places such as Ohio, Oregon and Michigan. Meanwhile, a ballot measure to ban bear-baiting in another battleground state, Maine, could prompt a backlash by hunters, driving them to vote in larger numbers than usual.
That helps explain why Kerry, with 12 days to go before the election, brought his campaign to a duck blind last week. He wasn't making a point about the war in Iraq or job outsourcing or health benefits. But he must have known that without taking aim at some more parochial interests, he could be firing a lot of blanks.
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