As has been argued in this column, there is a point at which a political campaign is what it is. That happens when the themes and tone of the contest have been so firmly set by the candidates that there isn’t anything that can move the polling numbers one way or the other.
Many analysts think the presidential race is close to that state of affairs, with those lined up behind Barack Obama and Mitt Romney not likely to change their opinions between now and Election Day.
That would leave a small number of independent voters in a handful of swing states to decide the presidential election, under the influence of wave upon wave of negative television ads.
Perhaps, then, there is a diner in Steubenville whose patrons will cast the decisive votes.
A Minnesota nonprofit called Jefferson Action is hoping there is still time for a more thoughtful discussion on the issues in Ohio’s 16th U.S. House District, a gerrymandered creation that stretches from the suburbs of Cleveland through parts of Medina and Summit counties into Wayne County, and also covers parts of Stark and Portage counties.
According to the Cook Report, it has a partisan index of R+4, meaning a Republican has a four percentage-point advantage. That’s considered a competitive district, and both sides are watching it closely.
To make things more interesting, two incumbents were placed in the district when new congressional lines were drawn after the 2010 census, which required going from 18 House districts in Ohio to 16. Freshman Republican Jim Renacci, of Wadsworth, and Democrat Betty Sutton, of Copley Township, are well into a no-holds-barred campaign.
On the plus side, polling by Jefferson Action, done in conjunction with forming a 22-member citizens panel from the district, indicates a very close but still fluid contest.
Fewer than half of those polled in late June could correctly identify the two candidates, not as surprising a finding as it might seem given the radically reconfigured district.
In a matchup question, Renacci and Sutton were almost dead even, 22 percent to 21 percent, respectively, with 24 percent undecided. (The rest either preferred someone else or said they would sit out the election.)
The citizens panel, which Jefferson Action calls a “jury,” hopes to get the two candidates to attend separate meetings on Oct. 6 to discuss their ideas on how to deal with three issues — the weak economy, unemployment and the federal budget deficit and debt, identified during a retreat this past weekend.
The issues selected by the citizens, who were chosen to match the district’s demographics, closely mirrored the results of the June poll, which found concern about unemployment, the cost of health care, the federal budget and debt, and weak economic growth.
The trouble, judging from comments from the Renacci and Sutton camps, is that they already believe they are bending every fiber of their beings toward a substantive debate on those very important economic and budget issues.
What’s likely is that the campaigns will continue their attacks in hopes of influencing the large bloc of undecided voters, and that even a well-funded, well-publicized exercise in civic involvement isn’t going to do much to stop the negativity.
By going outside normal political channels, Jefferson Action can indeed encourage a more thoughtful discussion of the issues that matter most to the district, but it forgoes any chance to set the agenda for the race in the 16th District.
That job has already been assumed by the candidates, their campaigns and the parties and interest groups lined up on either side. To have any influence against these full-time players requires a steady stream of financial support and a long-term commitment to build an organization that can survive from election to election, so people start paying attention to its messages.
Discussion among the citizens brought together by Jefferson Action will continue in the fall, focused on policy options for dealing with the major issues. That will be harder work than identifying the top issues that have long dominated a region whose industrial economy has gone through deep, structural change.
Even tougher is identifying strategies to implement solutions, bearing in mind the many citizens who have gathered in campaign committees, political parties, labor unions and other associations.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.