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Tulsa World

Campaign Connection

OU-POLL survey indicates Henry got his message across better.

NORMAN -- Democrat Brad Henry was able to win the Oklahoma governor's race because he did a better job of communicating with voters -- and because he had Barry Switzer on his sideline.

Those were some of the findings of a post-election study conducted by the University of Oklahoma's Public Opinion Learning Laboratory -- OU-POLL -- and Wilson Research Strategies of McLean, Va. The results were released Monday at a symposium on the OU campus.

OU-POLL randomly surveyed 400 Oklahomans who voted in last week's gubernatorial election involving Henry, Republican Steve Largent and independent Gary Richardson. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Some results were surprising, while others confirmed conventional wisdom about Henry's upset victory and a surprisingly strong showing by Oklahoma Democrats. Among the findings:

Henry and Largent rated almost even when voters were asked which candidate would best be able to run the state, cared about people and had the best ideas. Forty-eight percent identified Henry as the candidate most like other Oklahomans, while 32 percent said Largent was.

Sixteen percent of those who voted for Henry said they were influenced by the endorsement of former OU and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer. Poll analysts said Switzer's appeal may explain why Henry carried men younger than 50, a demographic group that historically votes Republican.

Largent rated higher than Henry in just about every issue category except education -- and education was rated the most important issue by a wide margin. Thirty-one percent said education was the most important issue, followed by the economy (15 percent), quality of government (14), taxes (9), health care (8), lottery (7) and state budget (4).

Forty-three percent could state Henry's campaign message. Only 14 percent could say what Largent's message was, and those who could identified him with the one issue -- education -- in which Henry had an edge in public confidence.

The notion that opposition to a state question to ban cockfighting helped bolster Henry's bid seemed to be contradicted by the survey. Chris Wilson of Wilson Research Strategies said polling data indicate that Largent actually received about 17,000 more votes than Henry from people who voted to allow cockfighting to continue.

Similarly, the pollsters found that Richardson's effect on the race was not clear-cut. A little more than 60 percent of Richardson voters interviewed said they would have voted for Henry had Richardson not been in the race. That would translate to a difference of more than 23,000 votes in Henry's favor. On the other hand, however, state Republican Party leader Chad Alexander and Democrat Party leader Jay Parmley said Richardson's campaign hurt Largent and aided Henry.

Eighteen percent of those voting for Republican legislative candidates crossed over to vote for Henry for governor; only 9 percent of Democratic legislative voters supported Largent.

Parmley said the Democratic Party was better organized this year than it had ever been and fielded better candidates than in recent years.

"In the '90s, we allowed the Republicans to define us," he said. "The Republicans had by far the best research and the best polling. For the most part, we were not connecting with the voters. This year we spent a lot of time and effort and money reconnecting with Democrats."

Responding to a question about Henry's photogenic family and the effect television advertisements featuring his three daughters might have had, Parmley said, "I don't know what the Henry campaign's polling numbers show, . . . but I do know there were donors who gave money specifically so those little girls could be on television again."

Alexander emphasized the Republicans' congressional victories, especially Tom Cole's in the 4th District, and said Richardson's campaign seriously damaged Largent.

"Richardson started running negative ads against Largent. It didn't help Gary Richardson. His numbers never got any better. But it did wound Steve Largent, and that was compounded later by Henry's advertising."

Parmley said Richardson's attacks on Largent in the weeks following a bitter and expensive Democratic primary and runoff allowed Henry time to regroup and raise more money.

Wilson, a Republican strategist, said, "I travel a lot, and I'd have to say that Brad Henry's advertisements were the best I've seen this year.