Of course the top of the Sunday poll story on the governor’s race was that Bill Haslam still has a double-digit lead at this point. But if you look closely there may have been some other significant news within the Mason Dixon poll taken for the Tennessee Newspaper Network and WBIR:
• The Haslam campaign has stalled. After spending millions on television between a July 8 WSMV-TV poll and Sunday’s poll, the Haslam number hasn’t moved. A total of 32 percent support in the last poll and 36 percent in this poll is within the margin of error.
• Zach Wamp’s negative ads achieved the purpose of stopping Haslam’s momentum. The ads are also moving undecideds—moving them to Ron Ramsey. Wamp’s numbers between the two polls went from 21 percent to 25 percent, also within the margin of error.
• Ron Ramsey appears to be the default position. He moved from 11 percent earlier to 20 percent in this poll. He’s the only candidate to show a gain beyond the margin of error. Evidently, undecideds looked at the Haslam-Wamp battle and decided to look elsewhere. Ramsey’s problem is that he doesn’t have the money to capitalize on his momentum. Can you win just being “not the other guys”?
You may have gotten whiplash from Haslam advertising lately. The ad where he sits with Crissy and discusses keeping to the high road almost overlapped with a new ad where a shirt-sleeved Haslam lambasts Wamp as a lying Washington spendthrift.
It is hard to believe that a professional campaign staff would spend January to early July building up Haslam as the nice-guy business executive above the fray and then turn him into an attack dog. It’s jarring. It makes one suspect that this decision was made by the family, not the campaign. It must be frustrating for the Haslams to see commercial after commercial attacking the family business as a “price-gouging” oil company. One can imagine Big Jim and Jimmy and Bill coming to the decision that they don’t intend to keep putting up with this sh*t.
But it may be that their internal polling revealed what the Sunday polling revealed—the attacks are keeping Haslam from closing the deal and they had to be answered. The mistake may have been wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on the “campaign of ideas” ad. But they’ve got it to waste. Haslam will likely spend more on this primary than any campaign in Tennessee history, but he hasn’t closed the deal.
The Wamp attack ad that features “Rusty” sitting in a restaurant saying Haslam just “ain’t our guy” has the added disadvantage of being true. Mostly. Haslam did raise property taxes in Knoxville. Pilot paid fines in three states for price gouging after Hurricane Ike—you can argue that they paid the fines rather than contest the allegations, but you can’t deny that it happened. An internal in the Sunday poll reveals that 46 percent of voters are “less likely” to vote for Haslam because of the price-gouging charge. The “teaming up with Mayor Bloomberg to take away our guns” is hyperbole. But Haslam did naively join Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Gun Violence group.
The Haslam response accuses Wamp of using earmarks, voting for the TARP funds, and other congressional votes. The Sunday poll reveals that 37 percent of voters are “less likely” to vote for Wamp because of that bank bailout. Wamp can argue that without TARP banks would have failed and that the earmarks benefited his district, but he can’t argue that it didn’t happen.
The problem with these exchanges is that squabbling between candidates turns off many voters. The debate at Belmont earlier this month may have been the beginning of the Ramsey mini-surge. Wamp (and Mike McWherter) attacked Haslam and Haslam responded. The optics of the debate had Ramsey at the other end of the stage and pretty well out of the cuss fight.
It was a reality show example of what’s been happening in the television advertising—and in the race itself.