It’s not often a columnist will admit that everything I’m about to write may be completely wrong. Then again, who’s really keeping track – this is a newspaper, after all.
My deadline requires I write today what you will read in two or three days from now, which means a lot of things can change. Let’s roll the political dice anyway.
Early voting for this year’s municipal elections started on Oct. 21, and will end Friday, Nov. 1. Based on the numbers from election officials, people aren’t going to the polls like they did four years ago when about 15 candidates sought to fill the seat of departing mayor Annise Parker.
The numbers aren’t staggering, but they are germane. As of Tuesday, early voting and absentee ballots were down from the last mayoral election by 22 percent. What’s more meaningful is the change election officials made to the process of early voting. This year, for the first time, voters can cast ballots at any polling location in the city, as long as they’re registered to vote.
The fascinating part to the apparent decrease in voting numbers – so far, at least – is the tone and tenor of this year’s campaign, where Sylvester Turner, Tony Buzbee and, more recently, Bill King have poured millions into advertising campaigns, all of them slinging mud like drunk pigs. You would think, with all that advertising, voters would have more interest in the election. Maybe not.
Consider the amount of money spent on this year’s general municipal election. As of Oct. 28, King has spent a total of $1.3 million on his campaign. Turner, the incumbent, has dropped $4.9 million on re-election efforts. And Buzbee, whose cash flows like a tank down River Oaks Boulevard, had dumped a whopping $8.2 million on his pursuit of the corner office in a self-proclaimed “filthy” building.
Just those three candidates have spent $14.4 million to win your support.
Compare that to the last mayoral election in 2015. In that race, with no incumbent on the ballot, Turner and King found themselves in a run-off, where Turner eventually won by a slim 600-vote margin. In his bid to make the run-off, Turner spent $1.9 million. King, consistent as ever, spent $1.2 million.
If polls are correct, that means the two leading candidates of this year’s mayoral race have spent $13.1 million, where the two leading candidates of the 2015 race spent $3.1 million. If you lost your calculator, it means $10 million more has been spent between two people in this election cycle, which just about makes you want to spew your Shipley’s donut.
Before offering a hypothesis for an apparent disinterest from voters, let me tell you what a professional political observer said.
Dr. Robert Stein, the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science at Rice University, happens to be a Heights resident who understands local political trends better than anyone in the city. For his part, Stein said there could be a number of reasons for the decrease in early voter turnout.
For starters, Tropical Storm Imelda shut down two post offices, and mail was severely impacted coming and going from Houston. We may find that a number of absentee ballots come in later than usual, he said.
There’s also a local pro baseball team that apparently has everyone’s interest, according to Stein. Rather than heading to a polling place right after work, a number of voters have likely stopped by the store for a 6-pack and some burgers in order to see Simone Biles flip off a first pitch, which would have been much cooler if she would have flipped with a glove and ball in each hand.
Stein also said there may be an issue with voters losing interest in the mayoral race. For those new to the area, Turner is the first mayor who served a 4-year term. In the past, those races were every two years, which kept people more engaged and local politics top of mind.
For example, Stein said King’s name recognition is particularly weak in two separate surveys – hovering around the 50-percent mark – even though King only lost the last election by 600 votes. That seems odd to me, but I have a hard time arguing with Stein.
I’ll add one more nugget to the conversation, though. If you and I were sitting at a table watching drunk pigs, we’d eventually get tired of the charade, go grab some fried candy bars and play a different carnival game.
In the same way, I have a strong suspicion a whole lot of us (me, admittedly, included) are just about worn thin of this whole mayoral campaign. For every accusation Buzbee makes toward Turner, Turner has an equally effective retort. For every shot Turner takes at Buzbee, Buzbee just drops another million confronting Turner. Meanwhile, King is left fighting for a seat at the table, and the only option he has is to play good-guy while airing the fallacies of Turner and Buzbee.
This campaign, lacking sorely on debate issues, has been turned into a slew of accusations about briberies and buddies, and it’s everywhere we turn.
Even worse, our municipal campaign season has become nationalized, where the tactics used by Democrats and Republicans in D.C. have filtered down to the most basic, local and important bodies of government – our own.
We can toss as much blame around as we like, and we should. Buzbee has absolutely infiltrated our lives with the amount of money he has spent on TV and social media. Unfortunately for us, he said he’d figure out the issues after he got Turner out of office. Meanwhile, Turner (and maybe rightfully) has turned around and become an equal cohort in the attacks, steering all conversation away from topics that matter.
The worst part of it all, in my opinion, is no matter how many voters end up casting ballots, we’re probably in for another entire month of this in a run-off. And if you think the past 60 days have been ugly, you just wait. We’ll all feel like slimy, if not drunk, pigs.