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Dave Helling: How do voters decide? No one knows for sure

Debates, such as this one at the Kansas State Fair between Republican Gov. Sam Brownback (left) and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, might play a role in helping voters decide.
Debates, such as this one at the Kansas State Fair between Republican Gov. Sam Brownback (left) and his Democratic challenger, Paul Davis, might play a role in helping voters decide. The Associated Press

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback says he’ll soon announce backing from a group called Democrats for Brownback. The plan, apparently, is to provide a counterpoint to Republicans for Kansas Values, the GOP moderates who recently said they’re behind Paul Davis.

It isn’t clear whether either endorsement will make much of a difference.

It seems strange to say this, but we really don’t know exactly why voters pick the candidates they do. Political scientists, consultants, candidates and reporters all think they have a handle on voter motivation. We’re all just guessing.

For many voters, party affiliation seems the most powerful motivator. If I tell you a candidate is a Democrat or a Republican, in most cases that’s all you need to know to reach a decision.

Voters who are truly undecided, however, may move to the next decision-maker: television commercials. Reporters and campaigns like to think voters scrutinize the ads’ facts and cast ballots accordingly.

That almost certainly isn’t the case. Almost all voters think political ads are misleading at best.

But voters do use ads to gauge comfort and identity. Who is this person? Does she seem likable? Comfortable? Is he too aggressive? Is she believable?

Free media is next. Still-undecideds will read news stories about the candidates, trusting reporters to sort out issues, statements and votes. They may contrast that information with the blizzard of misleading claims they’re getting in the mail.

Websites and social media are a part of the equation, particularly for younger voters. Cable TV and talk radio may have an impact.

Polls may sway some votes. Some people like to go with a perceived winner.

Back-fence conversations now enter the picture as voters chat with friends and associates. They may do their own research. Perhaps they’ll visit with a candidate going door to door or attend a meeting at church or school. Debates — or an unexpected, last-minute gaffe — might matter as well.

At this point, anyone still in the dark could turn to endorsements. Neighborhood groups play a role here, and newspaper endorsements can still move votes. But only a few.

We know voters make up their minds later each year. That means there’s still time for candidates to use these tools and others.

But the path narrows every day. Choices are locking in.

There’s some chat Milton Wolf will soon endorse a GOP candidate in Kansas — and pointedly decline to endorse another. It isn’t clear, though, if either announcement will greatly affect those races.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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