Cracking The Complex Code of Arkansas Politics (Robert Coon On Politics)

Fiercely independent. Ticket splitters. Or as Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville recently stated, "rather schizophrenic in their politics." 

Arkansans have always been complex and multi-layered on Election Day. Our electoral decisions are predictably unpredictable, so much that it’s become a badge of honor for many of us — a point of Arkansas pride.

Arkansas has a long history of election nonconformity dating to the watershed 1966 election of Republican Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in a state solidly controlled by the Democratic Party. And though the Republican Party has experienced a strong resurgence in Arkansas, the state’s incongruent electoral outcomes — and noticeable voting anomalies — are ever present.

Take for example the 2010 election cycle — the last time Arkansas elected statewide constitutional officers. 

Arkansans voted to re-elect Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe with 64 percent of the vote, propelling him to victory in all 75 counties — an unprecedented accomplishment and certainly no easy feat. And in the 4th District, Democratic Congressman Mike Ross — this year’s frontrunner for the his party’s gubernatorial nomination — handily won his re-election bid with 57 percent of the vote.  

But at the same time, Republican candidates across the state made significant gains in the Arkansas General Assembly, won the offices of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and land commissioner, and took control of a U.S. Senate seat and the 1st and 2nd Districts. (1

Two years later, Arkansans soundly chose the Romney-Ryan ticket over Obama-Biden, put the 4th District in Republican control (2) and elected a Republican majority in the state House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction.  

But once again there were some ideological "outliers." Voters easily approved Issue 1 — an amendment referred to voters by the Legislature to temporarily raise the state sales tax by a 1/2 cent over 10 years to fund road construction and improvement bonds. While Issue 1 received public bi-partisan support (3), it was given a thorough lashing by anti-tax groups who tried to defeat it (4) to no avail.

Even more significant, that same year voters very nearly approved the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act (Issue 5) — an initiative that would have allowed Arkansans to purchase, carry, use and even grow marijuana for medical purposes, with 48.56 percent support. This vote in particular certainly surprised many political onlookers, myself included, who expected a wider margin of defeat based on assumed political ideology.

Broadly speaking, the votes on issues 1 and 5 — specifically how they "don’t fit" within the general mood of the electorate that year — not only demonstrate how some complex issues don’t necessarily fit into our pre-conceived ideological fall lines, but also showcase the independent and unpredictable nature of Arkansas voters.

So what does this mean for the 2014 general election?

First, the state’s marquee races: U.S. Senate and governor. A number of recent public opinion polls on the U.S. Senate race, which you can find here (5), have shown how close this race is, with both candidates consistently ranging in the mid-40s and neither trending to the 50 percent level. (6)

In the governor’s race, the story isn’t much different. Frontrunners Hutchinson and Ross both continue to hover in the mid-40s — with a fairly steady group of undecided voters on the sidelines — in mosts polls.

Overall, there’s nothing surprising in the current results in either race, as the campaigns and outside political groups continue to pound opponents with negative TV ads. In some respects, this downward pressure serves as a political "whack-a-mole," preventing any of the candidates from making positive headway. But eventually, all the candidates will begin focusing more on driving their own positive messages and laying out their visions for Arkansas. The winners’ messages will be the ones that break through the clutter and resonate with voters.  

But what awaits the candidates as we inch closer to November, and how do they eventually seal the deal? Looking at the other issues facing Arkansas voters, it’s likely to be complicated. Candidates are going to be engaging an electorate that right now:

And as Arkansas Business Editor Gwen Moritz noted in her column this week, we soon could a statewide wet/dry amendment added to the ballot as well.

Ideologically speaking, the current polling on these issues would be considered a mixed bag, with voters not specifically applying traditional political ideology to these proposals. Therein lies the finicky nature and unpredictability of the Arkansas electorate.

For candidates running for U.S. Senate and governor, the additional 5 or 6 percentage points they need to win could reside in the hands of these ideologically-neutral voters. 

That means cracking the code of the unpredictable Arkansas electorate —- a daunting and difficult task by any standard — just might be the key to victory.

______

(1) And of course we asserted our constitutional rights to hunt and fish by nearly 83 percent. It’s hard to imagine who the 17 percent were…

(2) See Congressman Tom Cotton.

(3) Most notably from Beebe and Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman.

(4) Tax increase, bigger government, debt, etc., etc.

(5) Thanks Pollster.com. Also worth nothing: the research listed as Impact(R) are polls conducted by my firm, Impact Management Group.

(6) Some could argue that Pryor, receiving 48 percent in the Opinion Research Associates poll and in the Anzalone poll, is doing just that but that remains to be seen. Also: In my opinion, the Opinion Research poll oversamples Democratic respondents, pushing the numbers Pryor’s way a few points. Not to mention that this poll also potentially skews toward Pryor by using the words "incumbent" and "challenger" when describing the candidates — terms that won’t be on the actual ballot in November.   Anzalone, which polled for the DSCC, only released a top-line memo and not the full polling results — making it harder to fairly assess those results.

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)