The rising tide of campaign advertising is a sure sign that the days dwindle down to the national elections.

Nov. 3 is less than 100 days ahead and massive campaign money means that American voters risk being drowned in campaign ads and mail. Maine’s U.S. Senate race will set a new state record for spending and it’s highly likely the presidential campaigns will also set a new national record.

All the money will support wave after wave of political advertising. Those waves correspond to three parts of the campaign.

The first wave of the campaign and its ads is about issues. Incumbents are reminding voters of their record. They emphasize locally popular issues and bringing home federal dollars.

Challengers stress key voter priorities, especially health care. In Maine, Sen. Collins votes on taxes and Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh are the focus. In general, challengers want to find popular positions and define a contrast with the incumbent.

Most important to watch is the way a candidate may avoid talking about an issue raised by the opposing candidate. That can expose their vulnerability on an issue. Debates supposedly prevent dodging issues, but politicians know how to dodge questions.

Susan Collins reminds voters about bills she “wrote.” Sara Gideon tells them she will “fight” for certain issues. Voters would do well to be skeptical of both claims.

Senate staffers draft bills so loaded with details and loopholes that their sponsors probably couldn’t pass a test on their contents. Senators don’t “fight;” they usually vote with their party. Bernie Sanders fights, leading Hillary Clinton to say, “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him.”

Positions on issues please some voters, but they probably serve mainly to reaffirm support already consistent with their favored party’s policies.

In the second wave of the campaign, candidates and their backers “go negative.”

That means making attacks on the character of the opposing candidate. Presumably, voters do not want to be represented by a person of poor character. Voters are supposed to be induced to simply dislike the candidate.

Big money interests supporting Collins claim Gideon, as House speaker, was too slow to tell a Democratic legislator he should resign after he was rumored to have engaged in sexual harassment. Gideon says she acted promptly, right after the accuser spoke with a local magazine.

The charges and defense ignore reasonable questions. Should Gideon have demanded his resignation on the basis of rumors and then done so on the strength of charges alone? What would Collins have done in the same circumstances? Did the authorities find evidence to bring any charges against the man?

Those questions don’t matter. Campaign commercials cannot accommodate serious consideration of such charges. This is called mudslinging, and if some of the mud sticks, it is worth throwing.

Negative campaigning works. Shaming a candidate is a far easier way to get into a voter’s mind than a discussion of immigration policy or health insurance. Polling is always about issues and seldom about character. So it misses what may be most important factor influencing deciding swing voters.

Major conservative groups want to keep Mitch McConnell as Senate leader and Trump’s enabler. As disappointed as they may be with Collins on some issues where she has differed with Trump, they need her vote for McConnell. So they avoid issues and run negative spots about Gideon.

The third wave is the biggest. This year the choice is not about issues or even negative charges against the candidates. It is about Donald Trump.

Though polls are certainly less authoritative than they seem to be, they do leave some interesting hints. Most Republicans reportedly see the election being more about Trump winning than about defeating Biden. Most Democrats see it as more about defeating Trump than about Biden winning.

Trump is a polarizing figure. He has come to dominate American politics so that it is defined by voters’ attitudes about him, positive or negative.

He may also be a candidate whose character matters. In 2016, he won in large measure because, while some voters disliked his character, other voters disliked Hillary Clinton’s personality. Now Trump seeks to pull off the same kind of victory by belittling Joe Biden. Biden may respond better than Clinton.

In a single term, Trump took over the Republican Party. The fate of most federal candidates now depends on him.

All contests for federal office are part of the third wave of the campaign: the election or defeat of Trump. The election looks to be mostly a referendum on him.

The Democrats, facing a president that might try to invalidate the election if he loses, want a fourth wave – a tidal wave.

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman. 

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