LAKE MACBRIDE— “Only 15 percent of Americans are paying very close attention to the midterm elections—a number that is both very low and, apparently, significantly lower than the midterms in 2006 and 2010,” according to the Washington Post. Sounds about right. One of eight people are paying attention.
While my friends and family are engaged, the vast majority of people with whom I interact are not. When it comes down to Nov. 4, many seem unlikely to make the trip to the polls and vote, and won’t without prodding in a meaningful way.
In Iowa, the race most are watching, including folks inside the Washington beltway, is the Braley-Ernst contest. Along with my activist friends, we are doing everything we can to support Bruce Braley’s candidacy. It may not be enough to win, and the senate majority hangs in the balance of this and a half dozen similar races around the country.
“I think we have a wonderful opportunity this year to do something that I’ve only had a chance to have four of in thirty-four years have happen to me, and that’s to have a Republican colleague,” said Senator Chuck Grassley last June. “Bottom line, our chances are a lot better now than a year ago. It looks like now we’ve got a chance of winning six out of ten, some people would say six out of fourteen seats that are in play. I don’t know, but the chances are good.”
According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, Republicans have a 56.4 percent chance of winning the senate majority, so Grassley had a point, there is a reasonably good chance. In the Iowa race, the 538 forecast is a 65 percent chance of a Republican victory, with a two point lead. While Ernst is leading, Braley’s chances are also good, as the 90 percent probability range includes the potential for a Braley win. With low interest, the election will hinge upon voter turnout.
Predicting voter turnout is challenging at best. Already a record number of early ballots have been cast, with most being Democratic. There is no recent comparable election, at least in the survey done by Pew Research Center, which shows interest in the 2014 midterms well behind both 2006 and 2010. “Perhaps Americans have gotten used to the idea of partisan control of at least one chamber of Congress being on a knife’s edge,” wrote Seth Motel in an article for Pew titled, “For Many Americans, a ‘meh’ Midterm.”
What does the lack of interest in the 2014 midterms mean here?
Where they exist, it favors incumbents. People who have represented me in the U.S. House of Representatives and state legislature seem likely to be the same next year. My state senator is running unopposed, but for the other challengers, gaining traction against an incumbent, where there is low voter interest, has proven difficult. People outside political activists and operatives truly are not interested in the midterms.
Because the retirement of Senator Tom Harkin created an open seat, what happens in the U.S. Senate election doesn’t have a recent precedent in Iowa. We live in a state ranked fourth in the nation in health, safety, housing, access to broadband, civic engagement, education, jobs, environment, and income according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This is good news for incumbents, however, how it will play in the senate race is an open question.
Joni Ernst will get an updraft from the governor’s race, where Branstad leads Hatch in recent polls by some 22 points. Democrats counter that they have a superior ground game and the ability to make up substantial ground before the polls close because of it. But Jack Hatch is no Tom Vilsack, and the times have changed since Vilsack won his come from behind election for governor in 1998 by overcoming a similar polling deficit. Ernst’s two point lead over Braley indicates she does not appeal to no-preference voters the way the incumbent governor does, and people I meet are willing to split the ticket. In addition to lack of interest, the outcome of no-preference voters will be more important than partisan registrations to either party’s victory.
For now, it’s a horse race, more than in previous years. One that will go to the finish line. It may not be a photo-finish as the polling within the margin of error suggests, but all there is left to do is work to increase interest and make sure that more than one in eight voters go to the polls.