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Duke professors make predictions, discuss what they are looking for in midterm elections

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

There's a lot riding on the 2018 midterm elections.

Up for grabs Tuesday are all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, over a third of the Senate seats and 36 governorships, not to mention thousands of state and local representative positions.

With the Republicans currently in power, Democrats are looking to take the majority in Congress by flipping 24 seats in the House and two in the Senate. 

“I am focused on a large number of toss-up House races that will determine party control,” said David Rohde, political science professor and a former congressional staffer. “I think the Democrats will control the House and the Republicans will control the Senate. I am particularly interested in the question of relative turnout amount various demographic groups.”

The sheer amount of new blood on the ballots distinguishes this round of midterms. This is especially true for the Democratic Party, which fielded 681 new candidates this year, compared to 371 in the last election.

A record number of women are also running for office, with nearly 60 percent more women declaring intention to run for Congress this year than in 2016. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, Trump has toured the country campaign-style to back Republicans, continuing his fiery anti-immigration rhetoric and calling for the end of birthright citizenship. President Barack Obama has also been campaigning for Democrats and challenging Trump's style, though not explicitly mentioning him. 

We talked to Kristin Goss and Mac McCorkle, professors in the Sanford School of Public Policy, for their opinions on this year’s elections.

The Chronicle: What are your predictions regarding which party will walk away with each legislative chamber?

Kristin Goss: I have no idea. I have students in several of my classes research the predictions pundits have made in past elections and compare them to the results of those elections to see if the predictions were correct. They never are. So I’m out of the prediction business.

Mac McCorkle: My sense is that the Democrats will break the majority in the House, but I think that anyone who’s predicting is just guessing.

TC: What party trends have you noticed that may influence this election?

KG: The parties are much more internally homogeneous than they used to be. If the polling is to be believed, many of these races are incredibly close, so one thing you have to worry about is that, no matter how these races come out, our nation is going to be significantly divided. 

There are very few unity candidates that can win a significant majority of the vote. That’s worrisome to me. It’s okay for there to be stark political differences, as long as we’re not demonizing and can recognize that there are principled reasons for supporting each side. But I think that this sense of perspective is something that we’ve kind of lost in recent years.

Speaking as a citizen, not only as a political scientist, many of us feel that our politics has really become broken, partly because we as a society are very divided, but also because the relationships among our elected officials have really soured. There are great people serving right now as Democrats and Republicans, but the relationships between these two teams have really become broken, and it may be that we need a whole new generation of Democrats and Republicans in office to better relationships between the parties.

MM: Specifically speaking on the North Carolina elections, North Carolina is almost leading the way in polarization, and you can see it when examining the proposed constitutional amendments. It’s one thing to defeat the party in the ballot box. It’s another thing to alter the constitution to make your advantages permanent. That’s a scary thing, no matter which party is doing it.

The irony is that in the past, you had more fights within the Democratic Party and within the Republican Party. Those seem to have dissipated, so it’s just party versus party. Both parties are becoming more ideologically and demographically homogenous.

TC: Which races are you most focused on?

KG: Well, I am from Virginia, so I am particularly interested in the three, maybe four, races in Virginia that are notably tight. These races are interesting, first of all because they all involve women—three as challengers and one as an incumbent. I am also interested in the races that feature a lot of fresh faces running for the first time, featuring candidates that are diverse by race, gender and professional background.

MM: I am specifically focused on the North Carolina races. I am particularly concerned about the votes on the six amendments to the North Carolina Constitution. My concern first arose when thinking about how regular citizens would react when they had to read six amendments with no titles after already voting for candidates. I predict that there will be a significant amount of drop-off between voting for candidates and voting for these amendments. Furthermore, I wouldn’t be surprised if all amendments were unanimously accepted or rejected because individuals didn’t take the time to consider each one individually.

Furthermore, I think that the way these amendments have been crafted is just embarrassing. It is a sad day in North Carolina political history when we accept the way these amendments were done, even if they are passed. For example, the amendment that concerns voter ID. Even if that passes, it will still be up to federal law to determine what the legislature can and can’t do. It is a meaningless amendment. The amendments concerning income tax and hunting and fishing laws are also deeply flawed. I worry that to a greater and greater extent North Carolina politics is going to get stuck in the courts and the important business is not going to get done.

TC: With record numbers of women and minorities on the ballots this year, do you see this influencing voter turnout and/or how individuals choose to vote?

KG: I don’t think so. The biggest predictor of whether you are going to do something is whether you are asked. So I think that efforts to drive people to the polls knocking on doors, calling, having friends go with one another. These kinds of basic strategies are probably more powerful than what the candidates look like. There may be exceptions, but, for most people, the reason they do something is because they are in the habit of doing it or because they are asked to do it.

MM: Women may be the key factor everywhere, and you do have an historic number of prominent minority candidates. It will be a matter of whether there are enough votes picked up in millennial and minority voters to significantly influence the results.

TC: What key issues do you see influencing voter turnout and how individuals choose to vote?

KG: Explicit issues will probably not significantly influence how people vote. The typical American doesn’t go into the polls and vote based off of specific issues. People vote based on their party identification, and that’s been growing increasingly true in America over the last decade or more, so I think where the issues really hold the most influence is in generating political interest which, in turn drives people to the polls.

MM: While there are many issues that are important, I think the overwhelming element here is the way that Trump and the perception of Trump has defined things. I think that the anti-Trump sentiment will play a significant role in how people choose to vote because he’s just so clearly defined himself on one side of this enormous divide—at least that’s how people interpret him. 

The interesting thing and the thing to be cautious about is that even if Democrats do win, it is not clear that Democrats have truly recaptured people’s imagination on the issues as much as Trump’s gone too far and pushed people away by becoming too arrogant.


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