As they walked into Howe School to vote Tuesday evening, Carrie and Chris Duffner had already been counting down the days until Election Day.
The Mount Lebanon voters, who wanted to keep their votes private, called the amount of campaign ads on TV and in the mail “so much stuff” and “bombarding.”
Chris said there’s too much bashing of their opponent from both sides, but “that feels like most elections these days.”
Roughly five months ago, former Congressman Tim Murphy resigned after urging the woman he was having an affair with to have an abortion. That triggered a special election in the District 18 Congressional District — and brought a national spotlight on communities south of Pittsburgh. It’s been a barrage of mailers and campaign ads there, as well as money and visits from politicians pouring into the district.
“It’s crazy. It’s overkill,” said voter Rick Elster, a Republican, while at the polls in Elizabeth Township on Tuesday. “I will be happy when this election is over.”
But Tuesday’s election — even today — isn’t totally over.
Tuesday ended with confused voters, who didn’t know if they lived in the district or not, and no winner, as the race remained too close to call. Around 12:45 a.m. Wednesday, Democrat Conor Lamb spoke to supporters, declaring victory, while Republican Rick Saccone vowed he wouldn’t concede. Later on Wednesday, NBC News and The New York Times called the race for Lamb, but other outlets did not. Republicans prepared to challenge the results, alleging voter irregularities, per the Post-Gazette.
With votes still being counted and voters waiting for the official results — with no exact deadline — more campaigning is on the horizon. In just two months, voters will be back at the polls for a May 15 primary.
Will voters’ exhaustion continue into the campaigning that will start again almost immediately?
Will it keep them from the polls?
And will it impact the 2018 primary campaigns for both Lamb and Saccone?
The short answers — Yes. Not likely. Maybe.
Voter fatigue 101
It’s difficult to discern trends from special elections because they are just that — special, said Allyson M. Lowe, dean of the College of Leadership and Social Change and an associate professor in political science at Carlow University.
But voter fatigue isn’t uncommon, said Kristen Allen, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University. This special election has been a lot for voters, especially those who might not be as engaged or interested as others. That force comes from a few different places, added Lowe.
There’s burnout that comes with the frequency and number of elections, Lowe said. So even though the Pittsburgh City Council District 8 and the U.S. Congressional District 18 don’t overlap, special elections in each were a week apart, meaning voters saw yard signs and ads for both races at the same time, even though they weren’t voting in both races, she said.
It might seem that the ability to vote often would energize people to participate in democracy, but it’s the opposite, Lowe said. That’s why voter turnout is typically lower for midterm and municipal elections than in presidential election years.
The other source of fatigue comes from being exhausted by the amount of news coverage and advertising, she said. Voters who tend to report feeling the most inundated by coverage are those not closely following the race and seeing it every time they turn on the TV or get online.
But it’s important to remember that voter fatigue is not the same as voter disinterest or apathy, Lowe stressed. Voters can be worn out and still dedicated to a candidate and show up to the polls.
So a fatigued voter isn’t always a disinterested voter, she said. Take the 2016 presidential election for example. Many voters said they were overwhelmed going into the election, but they still showed up.
And that was the case in this race, too, Lowe said.
At the polls on Tuesday, multiple voters told The Incline that the amount of attention on this race was noticeable, but it was a necessary evil.
“You get tired of the advertisements on TV but whatcha gonna do? You need ’em if you’re gonna get someone in there,” said Valerie Shaw of Elizabeth Township, who voted for Saccone.
Lamb voter Alicia Palladino in Mount Lebanon added that she doesn’t watch a lot of TV, so the ads didn’t particularly annoy her, but she doesn’t think ads change minds either. They’re preaching to the choir, she said.
It’s a privilege to vote, said Daryle Schuster of Elizabeth Township, a Saccone voter. How would people who say they’re tired feel if they lived in a country where their voices aren’t heard?
However, voters and media like to have a clear winner at the end, Lowe said, adding tools to promote inclusion, like absentee ballots, can work against having that tidy answer. So while the turnout was good for this special election, casual voters may lose interest as it goes on and if it goes to court.
To Allen, the too-close to call race is more about the “campaigns waiting to make sure that all of the ballots are counted accurately before publicly ending their campaign” than it is about voter fatigue. What might play a bigger role when it comes to fatigue is that both of these candidates will likely be running in May primaries, she said.
Where we are
Tuesday’s special election was to find a representative to finish Murphy’s term, but the former lawmaker was also up for re-election this year. Both Lamb and Saccone have previously acknowledged their plans to run in May as well, but it may not be in the 18th congressional district.
Candidates aren’t required to live in the district where they run, which makes a looming court decisions about a new redistricted congressional map tricky for Lamb and Saccone.
If the new map is used, Lamb’s home of Mount Lebanon would be in the new 17th Congressional District, which would largely overlap with the current 12th District currently represented by Republican Keith Rothfus, the Post-Gazette reported. According to the PG, Lamb is expected to run in the 17th, and he previously said “I will be running later no matter where they draw the lines.”
Meanwhile, Saccone said told the Observer-Reporter in February that if the new map is put in place, he’d run in the new 14th District, which includes parts of the current 18th District, but not Saccone’s home in Elizabeth Pa. (Instead, his home would be in a new 18th District, which would include Pittsburgh, now represented by Democrat Mike Doyle.)
So it’s entirely possible the opponents will run in different races in May and could both win. But, that deadline is looming as well — candidates have until Tuesday, March 20 to file nomination petitions from the district where they want to be a candidate.
Are you tired yet?
Navigating voter fatigue can be a fine line for campaigns, Allen said. Certain tactics, like negative ads, can cause more exhaustion, and campaigns have to balance wanting to go all out with not disenchanting voters.
When it comes to TV ads, campaigns have to think about the return on investment, Allen said. And for this special election, it’s unclear how the TV ads will impact Lamb and Saccone going into the primary.
In the lead up to Tuesday, TV ads blanketed Western Pa., even though only the voters in the 18th Congressional District decided the winner. But if the new Pa. congressional map is put in place, all of that spending and attention could help Lamb and Saccone, Lowe said.
The ads have increased their name recognition across the region and that includes people that could be new constituents. While the introductory ads portrayed the candidates as people with good character, the added name recognition also means that voters are already aware of the negative baggage thanks to the special election, she said.
But, Lowe said, a new congressional map could energize voter attention because of the shifting of candidates, instead of it feeling like the same race that just ended. And it shouldn’t be surprising that all the excitement of the special election caused confusion for voters outside of the district, given the reach of the TV ads and media coverage as well as the shape of the district, she said.
In the primary, though, candidates won’t have the benefit of it being in the national spotlight, Allen added. But there’s also work to be done to make sure voters know what district they live in and where they should vote before Election Day, she said, especially if the new districts are in place.
“It’s not surprising that many people wanted to participate [in Tuesday’s special election]….The hope is that those voters are not skeptical of the process because of one bad experience,” Allen said.
Colin Deppen, The Incline’s reporter/curator, contributed to this article.