A color roadmap to Arkansas politics

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 374 views 

It’s still very early, but many people have already made bold predictions about the 2014 election cycle based on early polling data. It’s always important to remember that polls are only snapshots of a moment in time. They are not designed to be predictive instruments. I remind myself of this daily.

When looking at potential future political outcomes, it is imperative to look at historic election results – not just polling data alone.

The American political scene today is often described in colors – “red states,” “blue states,” and “purple states.” The last few election cycles, Arkansas has gained a reputation as being a “reddening state.”

As we head into the pivotal 2014 election in Arkansas, what do these same classifications mean for the 2014 U.S. Senate and Governor’s race, and do they have any predictive values? Let’s take a closer look at the county level (Link here for the PDF map of the county political strength. There is also an image of the map posted at the the end of this commentary.).

Going back to the 2002 general election, there are 14 counties (Benton, Crawford, Sebastian, Carroll, Madison, Boone, Newton, Marion, Searcy, Baxter, Pope, Polk, Saline, and Lonoke) that have consistently voted for the Republican candidate in the following races:
• The US Senate race in ’02;
• The presidential race in ’04;
• The governors race in ’06;
• The presidential race in ’08;
• The US Senate race in ’10; and
• The presidential race in ’12.

Conversely, there are nine counties (Pulaski, Jefferson, Woodruff, Crittenden, St. Francis, Lee, Phillips, Desha, and Chicot) that have consistently voted for the Democratic candidate in those same races. Why is this important? The raw demographics underneath the voting statistics matter just as much.

In those 14 solid Republican counties – during roughly the same period – the population grew by more 143,000 people to 821,678 people.

In the same period, the population in the nine solid Democratic counties grew by only 421 people to 596,332.

No matter how you look at it, this is a significant demographic shift that favors Republicans. Simply speaking, the Democratic base is shrinking and the Republican base is growing.

Twenty-three counties make up the total “base” for the Republican and Democratic parties. The remainder is the all-important swing counties. These “purple counties” will very well decide the races for U.S. Senate and Governor in 2014.

As you can see from the map, there are many “purple counties” that were carried by U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor in 2002 and then again by Gov. Mike Beebe in 2006. These counties will be paramount for Democrats to win if they have any chance of retaining the Governor’s office and the U.S. Senate seat.

On the other hand, the map also shows that what were historically reliable Democratic counties are now shifting politically. For example, Greene, Craighead, Drew, and Ashley counties are now very competitive for Republicans as evidenced by U.S. Sen. John Boozman winning each county against incumbent U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat. With the dwindling population numbers and shifting political trends, this has to be concerning for national and state Democrats as they attempt to build a winning geographic coalition.

What is more difficult to gauge is the future mood of independent voters in these “purple counties.” The political party that independent voters view more favorably will likely determine the outcome of the 2014 elections. For example, in 2006, President George W. Bush was wildly unpopular, and independent voters voted with Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. In 2010 and 2012, independent voters viewed President Barack Obama unfavorably and voted with Republicans. Recent survey data suggests this trend could continue.

According to recent public survey data, when independent voters are asked which candidate they prefer in the next election for Congress, the Republican candidate has a nearly 20 point advantage over the Democratic candidate. This does not bode well for Democrats across the board.

President Obama is extremely unpopular in Arkansas and national issues are driving the political narrative. This will continue over the next several months. Local Democrats will attempt to make this election a “choice” about the future of Arkansas while Republicans will make this a continued referendum on Barack Obama’s presidency.

Many people have asked, “Can the Democrats win?” The objective answer is, “yes … maybe.”

In the 2010 election cycle I surveyed thousands of independent voters. I found that only two Democratic candidates for congressional and statewide offices outperformed Republicans among independent voters. Those two candidates were Mike Ross and Mike Beebe. This suggests that a “blue-dog” Democratic candidate might be competitive. Nonetheless, recent polls show independent voters supporting the Republican gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson and the Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Cotton by double-digit margins. This is a must watch variable as the election approaches.

There will be a plethora of polls over the next several months to provide plenty of political fodder (of which I will likely participate). However, for now, any serious predictive look at the outcome of the Governor’s race and the United States Senate race must be rooted extensively in historic election results.

This approach is a solid framework of demographic and political trends, and will provide a road map of the Arkansas political battlefield for 2014. As of today, Republicans have a slight advantage, but the political battle has not begun.

Keep an eye on the “purple counties.”