Tilly: The unknown knowns

BY ZACH TILLY | JULY 24, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s been about eight months since we were treated last to a major election, but fear not, because we’re but 16 months away from two very consequential statewide races — one for governor and the other to fill the retiring Tom Harkin’s seat in the Senate.

The races are both in their infancy, but already a unifying dynamic has emerged. Both races feature an established entity (Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in one case, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, in the other) taking on a field of relative no-names. Barring the unexpected entrance of a big-name contender into either race, this dynamic could be in place for a while.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Iowans released July 19 found that the long-serving Branstad has near universal name recognition in Iowa, while his potential Democratic opponents, Jack Hatch, Tyler Olson, and Mike Gronstal, are virtually unknown. Nearly four out of five Iowans didn’t know enough to form an opinion about Gronstal, a Council Bluffs Democrat who has served for nearly three decades in the Iowa Senate.

Nearly everyone, 92 percent of the population, is unfamiliar with Olson.

Another Quinnipiac poll released on Monday found a similar dynamic emerging in the 2014 Senate race. While 58 percent of Iowans don’t know enough about Braley to have an opinion, he’s got a significant edge over his potential opponents and a high-profile job in the House of Representatives. None of Braley’s potential Republican opponents has better than 12 percent name recognition.

Given the wide disparities present in these races, it seems like a wonderful time to take a closer look at how name recognition affects elections.

A number of studies have identified name recognition as a major driver of electoral success, particularly in statewide congressional primaries in which political-party cues aren’t there to instruct low-information voters. A 2011 study from Vanderbilt University found that name recognition increases public perceptions that a candidate is viable, and, by extension, it increases candidate support.

Another perspective on name recognition posits that it’s not particularly in and of itself but rather as a proxy for other things that actually affect election outcomes, such as campaign spending and performance in a candidate’s previous job.

What both perspectives make clear is that low name recognition necessitates a large amount of spending (and, thus, fundraising) to boost recognition. Such a massive effort could be a problem, particularly for Iowa’s Republicans, who are in such disarray that they merited a spot on Roll Call’s list of the seven most dysfunctional statewide political parties in the country.

The clear advantage in the Senate race is with the Democrats for now.

In the other race, Branstad, the very definition of an entrenched politician, won’t have any problems with name recognition or fundraising, but he may face a different sort of problem. The public may simply be sick of him.

The July 19 Quinnipiac poll found that 26 percent of Iowans (even 12 percent of Iowa Republicans) say that Branstad’s long career as the governor of Iowa makes them less likely to vote for him. This may explain why Branstad’s approval rating is at 50 percent, but only 43 percent of Iowan’s say he deserves another term.

This feeling of over-familiarity could whet the public’s appetite for a newer, relatively unproven leader.

But this is all conjecture. All we know, for now at least, is that next year’s elections will feature a bunch of folks we know nothing about and one man we know just a little too well.

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