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Analysis: Breaking down the politics of the Augusta County sheriff race

afpmagazine-0915-FINALcoverWho do you think is going to win the Augusta County sheriff race? It’s a common questions these days in these parts, made virtually unanswerable by the absence of a key analytical tool: polls.

At most levels of politics, certainly from president at least down to statewide elections, and some high-profile state legislative races, we have poll numbers to help us gauge the relative place of candidates in the horse race heading into Election Day.

Things can and often do change with respect to the polls. Think: 2014, when Mark Warner led Ed Gillespie by double digits in the final pre-election polls, and eeked out a squeaker on Election Night.

But that said, poll numbers help set the tone for how we look at political contests.

Which helps us not in the Augusta County sheriff race. Because there ain’t any.

There’s a certain level of tea-leaves reading that goes on even with polls as a foundational element. When all you have is tea leaves, this is much, much more art than science, but here’s my best stab.

 

Item: Derek Almarode as the Republican nominee How much does it help Almarode to be the GOP nominee? From a review of his campaign finance reports, there has been a boost in the form of the state party pumping money into his race to help pay for more than $15,000 in mailers.

A party nod is also a help in terms of making it a bit easier to recruit staff and volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls, and then on Election Day work the polls.

There can be a value assigned to the R beside the name, but I’m not sure the R will be that much of a factor this year. In an election with other key races on the ballot, say, a presidential race, or a governor’s race, there would be scores of voters coming out to vote for their favored candidates in those slots who would have no real opinion on the down-ticket races, and for these voters party labels could be persuasive.

This year, the only races up the ticket in Augusta County are House races that aren’t expected to be competitive, meaning you’re not going to have many voters trudging out to the polls to vote who have no opinion on the sheriff’s race. Indeed, the sheriff’s race is likely to be the one driving the voter turnout in Augusta County this year.

Now, can the R help Almarode get people thinking his way before Election Day? Sure, but I doubt it will be much of a factor. It’s not like the other three candidates are coming across as liberal Democrats or anything.

Bottom line: the Republican nomination is probably a small plus for Almarode, but it won’t be determinative.

 

Item: News Leader endorses Neil Kester Do newspaper endorsements matter at all anymore? (Did they ever matter?)

Quick personal background: I was endorsed in my bid for a seat on Waynesboro City Council by the News Virginian in 2008. And I finished a distant second in a three-way race. The hometown paper endorsed me, the News Leader endorsed the guy who finished an even more distant third.

Now back to 2015: fairly or not, the News Leader is regarded by many locals as the Democrat newspaper. Augusta County is 70 percent-plus Republican.

In a four-way race, if Democratic voters coalesce around Kester as their candidate, that can be significant, in a race where the outcome would be split fairly evenly four ways, but I wouldn’t count on that happening.

Nor would I count on Kester making explicit overtures to local Democrats for their support.

Democrats will play a minimal at best role in the sheriff race. Republicans will play an only slightly less minimal role.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t want this endorsement if I was a candidate.

 

Item: Sheriff Fisher endorses Almarode Another endorsement that I wouldn’t want. Fisher, in the midst of an ongoing scandal over missing evidence room money and the failed re-accreditation effort, is toxic right now.

If he really supported me, I might ask him to announce his support of another candidate to kneecap that guy’s chances.

That’s how bad things are there.

Bottom line: I’d try to pretend this didn’t happen.

 

Item: All those damn signs everywhere There isn’t a stretch of road in Augusta County that doesn’t have signs touting the candidates.

Donald Smith seems to have won the sign war. Smith signs are everywhere, the big ones, the small yard signs.

Kester and Todd Lloyd have been playing catch-up the past couple of months. Almarode has done what he needs to do in the sign aspect, and little more.

What value is there to the blanket coverage? Well, it’s good in general, because the signs everywhere remind us that there is an election going on. They can also create the illusion of widespread support, and it’s not entirely an illusion. As a former candidate, I know how much work goes into identifying sign placement locations. The folks who agree to place a sign are making a statement, and that’s not insignificant.

Bottom line: I just think it all ends up getting canceled out because there are so many damn signs everywhere.

 

Item: Letters, letters, letters Similar analysis as above. People submitting letters to the local media outlets supporting a particular candidate are taking a stand, and that’s not insignificant. At least from an AFP perspective, the Smith campaign has been by far the most organized in this aspect. Not many hours go by that we don’t get a letter from a Smith supporter to share online.

Bottom line: Not sure how much impact it has, but it’s worth some effort.

 

So, where does this leave us? The only thing we know for sure is that the county sheriff race has made some sign companies some coin. Add to that list website designers, marketing gurus and content developers.

And WHSV, Star-94FM and iHeart Media.

None of whom are named Chris Graham. Not one check to Augusta Free Press. Which means, in addition to be among the few in the local media and design sector to come out of this campaign not significantly enriched, I might be literally the only person here who doesn’t have a dog in this fight, and as such might be the only person to be able to give an unvarnished, qualified opinion on how it’s going to go.

And now I’m going to frustrate you, because I’m going to pass on that opportunity.

I’m keeping my guess – and that’s the best I can do, offer a guess – to myself because there is still one huge unknown. With all that has been done already, this election will come down to which candidate has the most effective get out the vote strategy.

My best guess is that it will take around 6,000 votes to win on Election Night. I’m pegging voter turnout at around 30 percent, which means roughly 12,000 voters coming to the polls. You don’t need 50 percent to win a four-way race, but if I’m counting votes, I assume I need 50 percent and work from there.

If I’m sitting at the table with my campaign team this weekend, I’m going down my contact sheets to see who we can count on to vote on Tuesday, and who can be counted on to encourage their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc., to vote on Tuesday, to see how close we can get to 6,000, and I’m taking steps to begin mobilizing.

The unknown is how organized the four campaigns are in this respect. If it’s all been about signs, TV ads, letters to the editor and endorsements for all four, then Tuesday is a crapshoot.

If one campaign has been working all along with a GOTV strategy, and the other three have been playing the other game, the GOTV campaign wins.

If two campaigns have been strategizing GOTV for months, it’s a matter of whose operation between those two is most effective.

I don’t have any knowledge of any of this for any of the four campaigns. I know who has gotten what endorsement, who the letter writers back, who has signs where, but I don’t know what the campaigns are doing to close the deal.

I’ll leave you with this: if one of the candidates wins with a high number, then we will know with 20/20 hindsight who the favorite should have been all along.

Yeah, I know. What a copout, right?

– Analysis by Chris Graham


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