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National voter ‘engagement’ for GOP may not play out in Arkansas

story by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

A recent Pew Research study said Republicans nationwide have a clear electoral engagement advantage going into the November mid-term elections, but enthusiasm among likely Republican voters is lower than in years past. But two Arkansas political science professors said local politicos and operatives should not put too much stock in the survey.

The survey showed nearly even totals for self-identified Republicans and Democrats, but noted that Republicans are more enthusiastic about supporting their party's candidate in the fall by a margin of 45% to 37% Democrats.

Even with the advantage for Republicans in the poll, compared to 2010's difference of 55% to 42%, Republican enthusiasm nationwide is lower. Part of that has to do with the balance in power in Congress, with the number of Republicans wanting to defeat their incumbent member of Congress at 44% in 2010, versus only 38% in 2014, after four years of a Republican-controlled House.

The only numbers to not change in the poll for Republicans is the unfavorable view of President Barack Obama, with 51% of Republicans describing their vote in the midterms as a vote against Obama versus 52% in 2010.

Dr. Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, said while the dislike of Obama may be drive voter turnout in certain areas of the nation, he said the survey from Pew should not be taken as representative of Arkansas.

"Enthusiasm is about a sense of perceived threat," he said. "In a sense, this is sort of counter intuitive. The distrust and disrespect of Obama in Arkansas is in a sense taken for granted. It doesn't drive folks to the polls because everyone feels that way."

He said the enthusiasm gap highlighted in the Pew study was more about a lack of focus within the Republican Party.

"I also think the enthusiasm gap suffers for Republicans for an absence of a real agenda aside from disliking President Obama. It's easy to say what they're against, but it's hard to see what they're for. It's easy to be enthusiastic about a good agenda versus just blocking what somebody else is trying to do."

Dr. Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, said much the same.

"I think because Arkansas has been a state where the president has been unpopular for a long time, this is not a new dynamic," he said. "The president's unpopularity could be aiding some of the numbers nationally, but I don't know that it is strong here (in moving voters). It's been the norm the last two cycles. We'd need to see some Arkansas data on enthusiasm and I imagine some of the campaigns or the parties have done polling on the issue."

According to Barth, the bigger issue in Arkansas is going to be the unhappiness with Congress.

"I think that there's just so much negativity towards Congress as an institution that it's having an impact on individual members of Congress. But I don't know, we only have two members of the House running for re-election of the four," he said, mentioning U.S. Reps. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.

Bass said that even before the Pew study was released, Republicans had the advantage in many races across the state.

"I do think the broad partisan tide favors the Republicans," Bass said. "Arkansas is a conservative state. That benefits the Republicans. And opposition to Obama on top of that helps."

But the two elections still up in the air are the races for U.S. Senate where incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor is facing off against U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, and the governors race between Republican Asa Hutchinson and Democrat Mike Ross. Recent polls have Cotton and Pryor within the margin of error, while Hutchinson is up by about five points.

The issue is voter turnout and Barth said it is essential for Democrats to be organized if they are to overcome the Republican momentum built during the last two election cycles.

"That could be an impact here," he said. "The Democrats are anticipating and working to build large turnout. They feel like they need a large turnout to succeed. If that can't happen or folks are just so angered at their own party (and the President) and don't vote, that could be disadvantageous to Democrats here."

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With the election in its final three months, Barth said the debates would also play a large part in voter turnout and turnout of the two marquee races in the state.

"I think there's tremendous things that could happen race by race and the debates are crucial. The gubernatorial and senate races are close. … I don't think anyone would say this is a done deal. In big races, debates are important. … If one is right on target and another falters, that could change the dynamics as we saw nationally in 2012 with the Presidential race."

The other factors to drive voter turnout could be ballot issues on the statewide legalization of alcohol sales and increasing the minimum wage, but Bass said the races will largely depend on the candidates themselves versus any statewide or national issues on the ballot.

"The races essentially are going to turn on the candidate appeal of the Democrats versus the partisan ideological appeal of the Republicans. If one candidate looms large, it works well for the Democrats. If ideology looms, it works well for the Republicans. That's why you have elections to see which one prevails."

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