There are political races all over the country that aren't even close, but you wouldn't know it from listening to the candidates.
It seems that every behind-the-curve challenger is scrapping his or her way to victory and every ensconced incumbent is fighting an unexpectedly tight contest.
A few examples: Ted Cruz, the Tea Party-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate in Texas has an 18-point lead on his Democratic rival Paul Sadler. But, judging by Cruz's Facebook page, with its numerous get-out-the-vote pleas, you might think it was a lot tighter. Likewise, Missouri's Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who enjoys a comfortable lead over Republican Dave Spence, was still calling for campaign volunteers just days ago on his Facebook page.
It's all about crafting a Goldilocks message — not too confident or too desperate — that gets voters to the polls, says Janice Fine, a political science professor at Rutgers who spent two decades working in Democratic campaigns at the national, state and local levels.
"It's been my experience that you always want voters to feel that the race is tight because otherwise you risk them staying home," she says.
Anything can have an impact on turnout, Fine says. First and foremost is the weather. The least committed voters can easily opt to stay warm and dry on Election Day rather than brave the elements to stand in a line at a polling station.
That's especially true if they think their vote isn't crucial, Fine says. And of course nobody wants to back a loser.
"So, you want them to feel like you need their vote, that their vote won't be wasted, but at the same time, that they are voting for a winner," Fine says. For a campaign, she says, "that's a really complicated dynamic."
"You don't want to sound like your candidate is so far ahead that it doesn't matter and you don't want to sound like they are so far behind that it doesn't matter," she says.
And it's not all about the voters. Fine says that as a campaign manager she was always aware that her message was reaching three different audiences — the voters, the volunteers and the donors.
"You could end up embracing a strategy that's useful for your volunteers but could backfire with the voters or donors. Those are the tough judgment calls you make as a campaign manager," she says.
For instance, Fine says if internal polling showed her candidate with a comfortable lead in the closing days of a campaign, she would be careful about how she used that information.
"I might use it to raise last-minute money, I might use it to get the top-tier volunteers excited, to motivate them to put in that final push, not to sleep through the last 48 hours," she says.
"But I would be really careful about communicating that to the voters," Fine says.
Don Beachler, a political science professor at Ithaca College, agrees that selling a campaign as a close race even when it isn't such a tight contest is just good insurance.
"Polls aren't perfect. You don't want to play things so close to the mark that you make a mistake," he says.
Peri Arnold, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says when it comes to candidates who are trailing far behind, he thinks there's something besides campaign tactics involved.
"I think candidates are often self-delusional," he says. "You put so much into this and there's so much ego at stake. I think they just lose track of reality."
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