News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 25, 2012

Impact of Mourdock's words hard to tell yet

Brian Boyce
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The impact a controversial statement has on a political campaign depends on many factors, but in Richard Mourdock’s case, it’s not likely to help his cause.

Candidates for Indiana’s U.S. Senate seat continued dueling Wednesday over remarks made in Tuesday’s debate by Republican Mourdock about abortion in the case of a pregnancy caused by rape. His opponent, Democratic U.S. Congressman Joe Donnelly, challenged those statements amid national media coverage.

Local professors of political science and communication agreed the remarks can only serve to damage the Republican in what is a very tight race. But whether that damage alters the election will probably hinge on how far the state leans right overall.

Terrence Casey, professor of political science at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, said the comments aren’t likely to change the votes of solid Democrats and Republicans, but those still undecided will certainly consider them.

“I don’t see any way this can be helpful for him. It could be very damaging,” he said, pointing out the remarks even appeared in reports issued by the British Broadcasting Corp.

The race between Mourdock and Donnelly has been tight for some time, and what little polling data there is indicates the Republican led by five points prior to the debate. Considering how much out-of-state money has been pumped into his campaign by conservative groups, the real blow would be if those funders felt he’d lost the race and pulled money, Casey said.

Meanwhile, if liberal groups see a potential opening, they might send more help Donnelly’s way, the Rose professor said.

Whether that occurs will depend on how much damage party leaders feel has been done, and what relationship it has to the chances of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Nationally, Casey believes, the tide seems to be going Romney’s way against incumbent Democrat Barack Obama, and it could be strong enough to carry Mourdock through this.

Indiana is likely to go for Romney on the whole, and Mourdock’s comments aren’t likely to change that. So he might be able to squeak by on the wave, but his comments Tuesday certainly won’t help him, Casey said.

Matt Bergbower, professor of political science at Indiana State University, said people might want to lump Mourdock’s comments in with those of Missouri Republican candidate for Senate Todd Akin, who spoke earlier in the year about “legitimate rape” and a woman’s body being able to fight off a pregnancy from such a situation.

“I think there is a key difference between the two examples, really,” Bergbower said.

Whereas Akin’s comments were made “off the cuff” and he later apologized, Mourdock’s statement was prefaced with, “I have given this a lot of thought,” Bergbower pointed out. The candidate was visibly emotional when he spoke, and so while he offered clarification both Tuesday night and on Wednesday, claiming his words were misinterpreted, the message wasn’t a misspeak.

“It’s a minority view on abortion,” Bergbower said, noting it’s an extreme view that the majority of Americans probably don’t share, but one in which Mourdock has been relatively consistent. “So there’s a base out there for this type of rhetoric.”

Donnelly has attacked Mourdock’s alleged extremism during the entire campaign, and these comments will certainly provide fodder for those claims, Bergbower said, adding that some Hoosiers might feel it’s too extreme a position, but others might embrace it,

Meanwhile, the race is tight enough that former President Bill Clinton campaigned for Donnelly, and Romney has supported Mourdock. With the election less than two weeks out, it’s too late for a change-up and the voters will simply have to decide, Bergbower said.

Professor Mary Kahl, chair of ISU’s communication department and a specialist in political campaign messages, said people need to remember that the Mourdock-Donnelly race is very important to the country, perhaps even more than that of the presidency. Control of the U.S. Senate is up for grabs and both parties are fighting for each seat as the initiatives of the eventual president will be determined there.

And up until Tuesday, the momentum seemed headed the Republican’s way.

“This is Mourdock’s race to lose, of course, given the spread between himself and Donnelly,” Kahl said.

She said the GOP’s staunch conservative base has a “remarkably disappointing record” when it comes to women’s issues, and that base won’t budge. It will be those in the middle, those who were also offended by Romney’s remarks about “binders of women,” that will be swayed. Whether there’s enough such people in Indiana to make a difference or not remains to be seen, she said.

Whether Mourdock’s statement alters the election, it shows voters what kind of person is involved, she said. In general, the impact of a controversial statement is tricky to predict.

“I think it depends on how serious the gaffe is and how much play it gets,” she said, judging Mourdock’s statements to have been a “pretty serious gaffe.”

National research is showing that debates, such as the one in question, serve more to galvanize the base rather than sway independent voters.

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.