Nickname may lead to election victory

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 10, 2004

DEMOPOLIS – National elections are one thing; local elections quite another.

In the case of a national political debate, most voters don’t mind taking sides. In part, national candidates are simply figure-heads for an ideal. More importantly, the average citizen doesn’t come in daily contact with President Bush or U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

On a local level, though, the dynamics drastically change. In Demopolis, for instance, there’s a good chance the average voter will come across most, if not all, mayoral candidates after the Aug. 24 election. In small towns, everyone has to “get along” after the campaign season ends.

Because of that, most people hold their local political thoughts close to the vest. And interestingly, that makes the job of campaigning all that more difficult for candidates – especially with six of them seeking the mayoral seat in Demopolis.

Dr. Pat Cotter, a political science professor and noted pollster at the University of Alabama, said having such a large field of candidates is hard on the voters and the candidates.

“Folks will gather information as best they can, but it’s hard,” he said. “They’ll look for anything that’s available, but sometimes, it comes down to who has the best sounding name, the best sounding nickname, or who’s been around the longest.”

Cotter’s perception of local elections is not unique. Many political analysts credit ballot position – whose name is on the top – as an advantage in such an election.

Regardless of the quirks that shape a voter’s perception of particular candidates, Cotter also believes candidates gain a great advantage by their character.

“Is the candidate honest, capable, competent and concerned?” he said. “Those are things voters look for in local elections. And yes, they must have some grasp of local issues.”

To Cotter, the six candidates seeking election to the mayor’s seat must understand the position in which they want to hold.

“A lot of times, you’re not talking about popularity,” he said. “That may be the case sometimes, but I really believe voters look for competence.”

Without multi million-dollar campaign war chests, Cotter said it’s important for citizens to become as involved as possible. He also said organizations like local newspapers and TV stations must provide unbiased information to the electorate.

“In the case of Demopolis, your voters haven’t really had to think about electing a mayor for a number of years,” he said of Mayor Austin Caldwell’s four seemingly simple elections to the position. “They haven’t had to think about what they want because they’ve had a reservoir of information.”

The wild-card in the local election process, Cotter said, is the national trend of negative politics. On the national level, it’s almost necessary to sling mud at the opponent. In a city like Demopolis, Cotter believes candidates are taking on a risky proposition by attacking other candidates.

“Sometimes, it can boomerang on you,” he said. “At the same time, it can increase the publicity for a candidate. It all depends.”

Figuring out when to use negative campaign tactics, however, is a tough task for even a seasoned political analyst.

“With all the studies we’ve done, the best answer we, in the political science field, can give is that it depends,” he laughed. “There’s just no way to tell.”