Opinion Columns & Blogs

Michael A. Smith: Election claims don’t hold up

It seems every observer of politics has strongly held opinions regarding this month’s election results, but which ones hold up when compared with actual data?

▪  Democrats lost because wealthy Republicans “bought” the election. False.

Democrats angrily claim that Wichitan Charles Koch, his brother David and other GOP donors “bought” the election. However, this does not explain the primary reason why so many Democrats lost, which is because a portion of their base – the one heavily concentrated in urban areas – did not vote in high numbers. In Kansas, this means Wyandotte County, north Wichita and east Topeka.

Election results across the country were similar. Furthermore, as John Sides and Lynn Vavreck point out in the book “The Gamble,” the impact of campaign donations is a “dynamic equilibrium”: Both sides raise roughly equal amounts of money, thus canceling out each other’s fundraising and leaving other factors to determine the winner.

In Kansas, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paul Davis raised more money than did Gov. Sam Brownback for several quarters, but still lost.

▪  Democrats lost because candidates like Davis had no message. Questionable.

If having a clearer message would have turned out Davis’ base, then it may have helped. However, if the intention of this message was to persuade undecided voters, it may have been a fool’s errand. Very few voters are truly undecided anymore.

▪  There is a huge wave of angry, independent voters across the country who hate the two-party system. False.

This claim formed the basis of independent Greg Orman’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in Kansas. Sen. Pat Roberts’ campaign team used ample advertising dollars to strip Orman of his independent label, painting him instead as one of Kansas’ badly outnumbered Democrats.

Roberts’ gambit worked. Davis won more votes, even with the Democratic Party label, than Orman did as an independent.

Voters love to tell pollsters they are mad as hell, but their ballots tell a different story.

Americans today are sharply divided along party lines. As Sides and Vavreck note, most can tell you for whom (or at least which party) they will vote, a year before the election.

Thus, the focus needs to be on turnout, not just persuasion – something the Democrats forgot. Even most self-proclaimed independents have a pronounced, partisan leaning these days.

Across the country, today’s political landscape features a slight Democratic majority in presidential elections, which depends on a rather fickle bloc of voters heavily concentrated in big central cities and some older suburbs.

These voters tend to drop out at midterms, leading to Republican majorities in Congress. Packed into dense, urban areas, they also put Democrats at a disadvantage when drawing U.S. House districts.

Democrats need to not only educate their base about the dates and procedures for voting in the midterms, but also give them a compelling reason to invest the time and effort.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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