Saturday, November 04, 2000

Millions spent for slim results

Experts: Voters undecided on high court races

By Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — A multimillion-dollar ad campaign intended to spotlight a critical Ohio Supreme Court race might fail to turn out the voters Tuesday.

        With just three days before polls open, opinion surveys reveal a third or more of likely voters still haven't made up their minds about the race between two-term Justice Alice Robie Resnick, a Toledo Democrat, and the Republican challenger, Cuyahoga County Appeals Judge Terrence O'Donnell.

        Though competing sets of special-interest groups have spent millions on commercials attacking and defending Justice Resnick's record, one expert says many voters haven't tuned in and predicts hundreds of thousands won't bother to cast votes in the race.

        Eric Rademacher, director of polling for the University of Cincinnati's Institute for Policy Research, expects a repeat of the 1996 and 1992 elections.

        Nearly one of four Ohioans who cast votes for president in those years didn't vote in five races for the Ohio Supreme Court.

        “I have not seen any indication, even with the increase in advertising, that we're going to see anything different,” Mr. Rademacher said.

        Low turnouts are the norm in Ohio Supreme Court campaigns, in which candidates themselves spend little and say less to grab voters' attention.

        This race is far from typical.

        Aiming to end a 4-3 high court majority that has overturned GOP-backed lawsuit and worker-compensation reforms, business interests have filled airwaves with ads trying to persuade voters to push Justice Resnick off the bench.

        Citizens for a Strong Ohio and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have spent up to $4 million on commercials that call Justice Resnick a paid pawn of trial lawyers and labor leaders. Another TV spot portrays the justice as bad for education.

        Defending Justice Resnick are the Ohio Democratic Party and Citizens for an Independent Court, a PAC

        formed by the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, the state AFL-CIO, the Ohio Education Association and the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

        Together they have spent more than $1 million on ads that accuse business interests of distorting Justice Resnick's record. They call her a champion for education, highlighting two landmark decisions she wrote ordering the state to spend millions more on public schools.

        The air time and the spending are unheard of in a state Supreme Court race.

        The special-interest commercials were intended to increase turnout by drawing votes from Ohioans who would otherwise ignore judicial campaigns.

        “People are simply not aware of the immense impact this court is having on the state of Ohio,” Andrew Doehrel, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce president, said in June. “What you have to do is educate and educate and educate.”

        After a month of advertising, opinion polls show a big chunk of the electorate remains undecided.

        A Thursday tracking poll shows 29 percent of voters haven't made up their minds. Zogby International, a New York-based polling firm, has been surveying the race for the Toledo Blade since Oct. 25.

        Another survey, for the insurance industry by Columbus-based Opinion Strategies, finds 36 percent of likely voters are undecided. Both polls have a sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

        Mr. Rademacher says the ad campaigns can't compete with the daily demands on voters' lives and a blitz of commercials focused on the presidential race. Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Democratic Vice President Al Gore, their parties and supporters have spent $16 million on Ohio ads through Oct. 31. The Ohio Poll found only 2 percent of those surveyed were undecided about president.

        Which Supreme Court candidate is in the lead? The polls differ.

        The Zogby poll shows Justice Resnick with a daily lead hovering between 6-9 percentage points. But Opinion Strategies gave Judge O'Donnell a 4-point edge.

        Bill Burgess, a Resnick campaign consultant, said the Opinion Strategies poll is biased because it was paid for by Columbus-based Grange Insurance Co. Insurance interests are big contributors to Judge O'Donnell's campaign and have formed their own PAC, Ohioans for Fair and Independent Judges, to support him.

        Judge O'Donnell said he was a little surprised that the number of undecided voters remains high.

        “I've done hard work to build name recognition, and I think we've run a credible, positive campaign,” he said.

        Chip McConville, leader of Citizens for a Strong Ohio, said he was not surprised by the poll results, even though his group has run ads for more than a month now. He agrees many Ohioans won't vote in the race.

        “People still don't have a very high knowledge base about the Ohio Supreme Court,” he said.

        But he does say the ads have reached some voters. “There are a lot more people talking about the (Supreme) Court this year than in prior years,” Mr. McConville said.

        He points to the other Ohio Supreme Court race on Tuesday's ballot to make his point.

        That race, between Republican Justice Deborah Cook and Democratic Hamilton County Municipal Judge Tim Black, has earned only a fraction of the attention paid to the Resnick-O'Donnell campaign.

        The Zogby poll lists undecided voters at 44 percent. The race is virtually even among the decided voters, with neither candidate claiming more than a 1-2 percentage point lead.


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