IU political science professor Marjorie Hershey says three questions hang over the upcoming November elections:

  • Is the presidential race already over?
  • Is the Indiana Senate race competitive?
  • What is the influence of super PACs?

Hershey offered her answers to those questions when she spoke to the Bloomington Press Club Sept. 24.

As a professor and researcher, Hershey focuses on political parties, campaigns and elections, and has carefully considered and studied those three questions as part of her work.

First, the presidential race is not over, despite the most recent gaffes that seem to erode Mitt Romney’s chances, she said.

“Obama has been ahead in some polls, but only slightly,” she said. “What will make a difference are two campaign events, the conventions and the debates. Other events really don’t matter much.”

Hershey studies public opinion and polls of attitudes in her research. Most people make their voting decisions quite early and campaign rhetoric only reinforces their opinions as they listen to the candidates they like.

The race itself plays out at the state level, and then only in some key states, she said. States already solidly in the Democrat or Republican camp won’t get much attention from candidates, but battleground states with high numbers of electoral votes where allegiances are not so clear cut, such as Ohio and Florida, will be the focus.

“This dictates the campaign issues, too,” she said. Democrats will focus on Medicare in Florida, for example, because vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan “worries seniors.” But the focus in Ohio may be jobs or manufacturing because those are top issues there.

Hershey cited predictors such as those from the 538 blog from the New York Times, which suggest that the state of the economy in the third  quarter of the year and the presidential approval rating in June of an election year forecast the election results.

As for the Senate race, Hershey says polling data indicate this is a competitive race,  that Richard Mourdock and JoeDonnelly are in a dead heat. Mourdock’s “extreme” positions have cost him his party’s respect in some ways, she said, but voters don’t always vote on the issues but rather on what the candidate is really like.

And, in that race, voters are seeing the effects of the 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case, which said government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. This means groups can flow money to campaigns without strict regulations.

“When you are a candidate getting some of the $5 billion spent on political advertising, you have to wonder what that group wants in return,” Hershey said.

The federal election rules changed in the 1970s when the Federal Election Campaign Act set limits on contributions from any one person. In 2002, McCain-Feingold said ads that constituted independent spending from corporations or unions could not run within two months of the election.

Now, thanks to court rulings such as that of Citizens United, groups can give money through political action committees, which can accept unlimited amounts from donors for independent spending. Add to this that 501c organizations, “social welfare groups,” are not required to say who is making donations. So if super PACs flow funding through 501c organizations, no one knows which donors are funding the ads.

“Most of the contributions are concentrated within small groups of people, such as Wall Street, energy and the hotel industries,” Hershey said.

The money often is spent on key races, targeting those such as the Mourdock-Richard Lugar primary. Sometimes, she said, these groups run ads that are harsher or more negative than the campaigns they support are comfortable with.

With the conventions over, the next notable events for voters are the debates, which Hershey said do gain attention, though often as theater rather than a source of political information.

“This could restore Romney, whose coverage so far has been negative,” she said. “It won’t be hard for Romney to do better than expected.”

Hershey is author of two books of research and a number of articles in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly and Political Communication.