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Experts: Middle-ground voters are key in midterm battles

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Voters are being flooded with political ads as candidates fight for attention in the waning weeks of the 2018 midterm primary. We spoke to two analysts who discussed the influence of federal races on local elections; midterm voter turnout; and the Trump effect.

Control of Congress

A typical midterm election over the past 50 years has seen the party that controls the White House losing three seats in the Senate and 24 in the House, said Erich Saphir, head of the political science department at Pima Community College.

If that holds, the Democrats would end up controlling the Senate this year. There are 51 Republicans and 47 Democrats in the Senate. Two independents caucus with the Democrats.

But nothing's for sure because Democrats are defending multiple Senate seats in states that voted for Trump in 2016, Saphir said.

Of the 35 Senate seats up for grabs, 26 are held by Democrats. The first midterm election faced by a new president is usually the most damaging for his party, Saphir said. President Obama losing 63 House seats in 2010.

“But even if it’s a terrible year for Republicans, I don’t see anything like that on the horizon,” he said.

But Democrats still have a good chance of gaining control of the House, he said. As of July, Republicans hold 236 House seats; Democrats have 193. There are six vacancies.

Midterm correction

It’s difficult to describe American elections in generalities, especially after President Trump secured the White House, said Micah Halpern, political commentator and guest columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

However, voters often tend to correct their partisan exaggeration in the midterm elections, he said.

“So if it went far to the left, it would come back to the center,” and vice versa, he said, adding that the vast majority of Americans hold moderate political values.

“Fundamentally, Americans are centrists,” he said. “We don’t hear about the centrists because they’re not very fun, they’re not entertaining, they’re not crazy and they’re not very newsworthy.”

The key to winning any election is to secure votes from the middle, he said.

Over all, the media have been unsuccessful in understanding or communicating the importance of winning the swing vote, Halpern said.

A common oversight during an election cycle, whether it’s a midterm or presidential bid, is that political races are won locally.

Certain counties in California, for example, will always lean Democratic, he said. And Trump will simply keep these counties blue and won’t necessarily prompt a boost at the polls.

Similarly, Republican strongholds will stay put, he said.

“The big question is what’s happening in the middle, and that’s where I think the excitement is,” Halpern said. “And the polity in general is exciting because the middle people are actually the ones who are able to be convinced.”

These are the voters who are paying attention and who are apt to change, he said, calling Trump wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida in 2016 a prime example.

Thus far, Halpern doesn’t see a counterbalance brewing in states that went Republican less than two years ago.

However, the prism for estimating how people may vote come November — which includes reading local newspapers and listening to regional radio and television shows — is skewed, Halpern said, recalling how off base the predictions were about the last presidential campaign.

“You can’t do polls, either, because people lie on the polls … they tell you what they think you want to hear,” he said.

Looking at the data

The current model for analyzing the political climate is warped, Halpern explains, so he’s not confident of the data. Phone banking calling a landline is antiquated.

Moving forward, he said, tracking voters’ habits online is a sure-fire way to study how an election may play out in the 21st century.

“If we’re going to do a real serious analysis, we’ve got to use artificial intelligence to do it,” Halpern said.

There are biases and limitations to using this type of data, Halpern said. But in doing so, he’s embracing what he calls “the question mark” in order to better understand the voting public.

“What most people are doing is trying to give you what they would like to happen, not what they’re interpreting, and that’s a problem,” he said. “They’re being presented as analysts and instead they’re party hacks.”

 Impeachment talk

Overplaying the push to impeach Trump could backfire on Democrats in November, Saphir said. The Republicans learned that lesson in the 1998 midterms, when they lost seats in the House as President Bill Clinton’s impeachment loomed.

Clinton’s job approval ratings was stronger than Trump’s, but there was a visceral disdain for both men. Similarly, the American economy was strong then and now, he said.

Although comparing the two presidents is imperfect, it’s worth noting, he added.

“And the Democrats are divided, of course, on what to do on the impeachment front,” Saphir said.

On one side you have Tom Steyer — a billionaire liberal activist, philanthropist and staunch opponent of Trump —who believes the midterms should be focused on removing the president from office.

“But some of this impeachment fervor has lost any sense of proportion and reality,” Saphir said.

He said it seemed “over the top” when former CIA Director John Brennan called Trump’s performance at the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin “nothing short of treasonous.”

Controversy marred the July 16 meeting, after Trump second guessed the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential elections.

“Whether [Trump] was misspeaking or not, something that somebody says at a news conference is grounds for impeachment — that just struck me as pretty extreme,” Saphir said.

Presidential impeachment is the first phase in a two-step process, he explained. If Trump were impeached in the House, he would still need to be convicted by a two-thirds majority in the Senate to be removed from office.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached in the lower chamber of Congress, as was President Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted in the Senate.

If there's a major “blue wave” during the midterms, there will be impeachment votes held in the House next year, he said, but a Senate conviction and removal is unlikely.

Local wave

The “blue wave” — a sweeping Democratic victory in the midterms — is another example of believing America’s political system will self-correct and return to the center, Halpern said.

Democrats are excited about this, and they can naturally expect to win some seats this cycle, he said. However, their battle needs to be localized and not focused on what’s going on in Washington. Attaching a candidate to the heartbeat of a community issue, whether it’s labor, education or immigration, is invaluable.

“Elections are local and I can’t express that more,” he said.

The Republican Party is split over Trump because he’s a polarizing force, Halpern said. But GOP lawmakers who are not allied with the president will eventually self-destruct.

“In the end, he’s still the president of the United States, and brings with him a tremendous amount of panache,” he said. “Without that panache, it would be very difficult, in Washington, to affect any real leadership position and work for your constituents at home.”

 Party identity

Saphir said both political parties are struggling with their own identity: the GOP is split between populists and conservatives; the Democrats are divided between the center-left and socialist-Democrats.

When the Tea Party emerged it helped and hurt the GOP, Saphir said. There are similar characteristics shared between the socialist-leaning segment of Democrats and far-right conservatives, he said.

Either segment can capture a primary nomination and potentially disrupt establishment candidates, he said, but will most likely lose a general election because they’re political extremes.

In Arizona’s Senate race, you can see the divide, Saphir said.

Republicans Joe Arpaio and Kelli Ward are long shots in a general election, but they’re forcing Martha McSally to appear pro-Trump to secure the nomination. On the Democratic side, Kyrsten Sinema, who has the clearest path to the nomination, is rebranding herself a centrist even though she began her political career with the Green Party.

McSally and Sinema battling in the general election will be the only competitive race come November, he said.

Voter turnout

Voter turnout during the midterms is historically low, Halpern said.

The 2014 midterm saw the lowest turnout in 72 years, with 36.4 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.

Usually midterm candidate can’t amass a large enough campaign, Halpern explained. Plus, candidates have relied on television ads to promote themselves, which now misses young people completely.

Thinking that the Democrats can flip the House and Senate is “extremely optimistic,” he said, because, generally speaking, conservatives vote more consistently and young people tend not to vote. The only exception was that young voters came out in big numbers for Obama’s first campaign.

“I do not see young people coming out to vote in the midterm elections,” Halpern said, adding he doesn't think the Democratic Party will sweep in November.

The Democrats will enormously successful if they win 40 percent of the congressional seats up for grabs, he said.

“A 60-40 split would be a huge success for the Democrats,” he added.

The Senate will stay in Republican control and the Democrats may divide the House, he said, adding at best the Democrats will flip the lower chamber by one seat.

Consumer confidence is climbing, the stock market is improving and people are working again, Halpern said. These factors, although they are not all-encompassing, will affect how many people will cast ballots for and against the GOP.

“And to discount [Trump] as a crazy nut that’s going to have no impact, or is going to cause people to all vote blue, is a big mistake,” Halpern said.

David J. Del Grande | 547-9732

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