#ARPX: It's the Final Countdown

Robert Coon & Blake Rutherford On Politics

#ARPX: It's the Final Countdown
(Beth Hall)

(Editor’s Note: With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Arkansas Business political columnists Robert Coon and Blake Rutherford assess the recent debates, the latest polls and what to expect in the final days. Online Editor Lance Turner moderates.)

Lance Turner: It’s the light at the end of the tunnel! We're now less than two weeks away from Election Day, and early voting has been under way for three days. What can voters expect to see from candidates in the coming week?

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Blake Rutherford: I think voters can expect to see much of the same from the candidates. It's difficult to envision any candidate trying to do too much differently for fear of throwing the entire campaign’s narrative out of balance or — in the case of those candidates trailing in the polls — it seems desperate. That, and it’s increasingly more difficult to make a case as the airwaves reach their peak of saturation. 

The only thing that causes a campaign to shift its thinking is an unforeseen disruption. Otherwise, all the opposition research we’re gonna see has been obtained and released. So with early voting upon us, the focus of the campaigns should shift to driving turnout, which is, for example, the key to U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor's re-election.

Robert Coon: That’s right. The campaigns are now laser focused on getting their bread-and-butter voters to the polls. Generally, early voters are those with their minds made up — at least as far as candidate campaigns go — and essentially make up an important part of the base vote for every campaign. So while campaigns focus on turning out their base, other tactics like mail, TV and social media will continue in earnest through election day as the campaigns still battle over undecided and less interested voters.  

So messages coming down the stretch will focus on turnout, but also on issues that the campaigns believe will convince undecideds to break their way. 

LT: So we all agree that turnout is key in any election, but very crucial in midterms. What, if any, effect is the voter ID ruling going to have for this cycle in Arkansas?

Robert: I think the voter ID ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court has minimal impact. 

Those against voter ID assert that it disenfranchises minorities and older voters who don’t have, or can’t afford identification — a claim that sounds logical in theory but is hard to back up with facts. Conversely, the professed intent of requiring voter ID is to reduce or eliminate voter fraud at the polls, yet that very thing is difficult — if not impossible — to prove without a mechanism like voter ID to catch those in the act. That makes voter ID a bit of a catch 22. After all, how do you demonstrate that people are voting fraudulently without a mechanism to actually track the problem?  

Regardless, I don’t expect the ruling to have much of an effect on turnout. While Democrats hailed the ruling for both philosophical and political reasons, it’s important to note that there was no voter ID requirement in 2010 or 2012, when Republicans made strong gains at the state legislative and federal levels.

Blake: The great burden of voter ID — a deplorable law that was rightly struck down — was the possibility that it could usher back in intentional discrimination at the polls. Fortunately, we won't have to experience the adverse impact of the law. 

Does the absence of voter ID mean, however, that more minorities and seniors — two groups that the Democrats must mobilize and who also stood to be harmed by the law — will show up to vote? I don’t believe there’s a correlation. Voter mobilization programs maintain a high level of importance with or without voter ID.

LT: We're coming off a week packed with debates. We even had a final round of Asa Hutchinson vs. Mike Ross on northeast Arkansas television the other night. Did anyone in any of the debates move the needle? Does anyone even watch? Did any of it matter?

Robert: Debates, as intriguing and energizing as they can be for political insiders, are simply not viewed with the same level of interest by the broader electorate.  

For campaigns, the greatest value debating can produce is a memorable zinger by their candidate or an embarrassing gaffe by their opponent. Barring either, stale talking points and familiar attacks generally fail to have a significant impact. 

In Monday’s debate between Hutchinson and Ross at Arkansas State University, it appeared that Ross was searching hard for a zinger, throwing out several pre-rehearsed lines to capture that memorable moment. But in my opinion, none really connected.  

In the U.S. Senate debate in Fayetteville, Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton’s persistent use of the Obama name has gotten some attention from insiders, but I can’t see how that ends up being a negative for him with voters. Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor’s assertion that the middle class "goes up to $150,000, $200,000,” appeared to have some legs beyond that debate and will likely be something that he’d prefer to have said differently.  

In the AETN attorney general’s debate, Democrat Nate Steel had a good showing and — in the event that voters were actually watching — could have marginally helped his standing in that race.

Blake: If we consider the debates that garnered the most attention — U.S. Senate and governor — I think we saw a range of effects.

For one, the conception was that Cotton would present much better than Pryor. I think it was clear from both debates that simply was not true. Pryor was compelling and relatable; Cotton was rigid and repetitive.

But in the governor's race, things appeared to come apart for Ross. I don't think he performed as well as his talents allow, and Hutchinson was genial and at ease. It felt — and I suppose we will see in a few weeks — that during these exchanges, Asa was able to generate enough separation at the right times and show voters an appealing side that was obscured in elections' past.

But does any of that really resonate with the average voter who, unlike us, doesn't pay close attention to these sorts of things? Or — to a broader point — doesn’t even know they're taking place? It’s hard to say.

Ultimately, I don't think the debates disrupted any of the other statewide races and, to be honest, I think we should be thinking about new ways to present these candidates other than on pre-taped AETN programs. But that's a different matter, I realize.

LT: So let's talk about where we stand less than two weeks out. The Talk Business/Hendrix College poll released this week suggests a widening lead for Cotton, an edge for Pat Hays in the 2nd District and a tightening race in the 4th. What's the takeaway from these latest numbers?

Robert: Talk Business/Hendrix College has a solid track record when it comes to political polling, and they’re very transparent when it comes to releasing demographic breakdowns of their polling samples. 

As we saw earlier this week, Talk Business now has the U.S. Senate race at an 8-point lead for Cotton over Pryor. The poll has a sample of more than 2,000 respondents (which means a very small margin of error) and includes both live cell phone calls and automated calls to landline numbers. 

Turnout has been the name of the game recently, with Democrats trying to hard sell their efforts that they believe will propel them to victory in a number of races. It’s notable that Talk Business provided a re-weighted version of their results to try and reflect what Democrats are claiming their turnout advantage will be. But in that re-weighted version, Cotton’s lead only dropped by 1 point.  

If you’re the Pryor campaign, this poll comes at a particularly bad time because it comes right as early voting begins — not to mention the campaign has been heavily pushing get-out-the-vote efforts with President Clinton to help generate momentum.

Regarding the 2nd and 4th Congressional races, I’d expect both to be competitive right down the stretch. The results in these races were calculated using the same statewide sample, but divided by Congressional boundaries. That means that each Congressional result has a smaller sample size and higher margin of error.  

I’d say the numbers in 2nd show some of the Democratic base in this swing district coming home. I’d also say that Pat Hays is a well known candidate, who is running effective TV ads (misleading or not). This race, in my view, will continue to come down to a turnout contest between densely populated Democratic strongholds in Pulaski County and the surrounding Republican-leaning counties. And it’s far from over.   

The race in the 4th is an interesting one to watch; the Talk Business poll shows Democrat James Lee Witt closing a 14 point gap from polling results in July. Notably, though, most of the ground that appears to be made up by Witt is from previously undecided voters who have coalesced around him and not voters abandoning Republican Bruce Westerman.  

I think most political observers have long expected Witt’s numbers to rise and certainly didn’t think he would finish in the 30s, which a poll in July had suggested. I think Witt’s movement upward is simply reflective of his base voters coming home.  

Blake: We have to consider the polls at this point in the context of voter turnout. Both sides have been hard at work registering new voters and putting together programs that will mobilize turnout. In midterms elections, the Democrats have generally struggled more than the Republicans, but 2014 may be a different year when we consider what’s at stake, particularly in the U.S. Senate. 

In the Senate race, a poll showing Cotton with an 8-point advantage is simply not how the Pryor campaign wanted to open the early voting period. It's been no secret that Pryor was going to have to throw everything he had at turnout, and this poll shows that even doing that well might not shift the ultimate outcome. It's tough news for supporters of Pryor, to be sure.

In the 2nd, Hays caught a break when Republican opponent French Hill doubled down on his opposition to the minimum wage. That provided the Hays campaign with an opportunity to cast Hill in the role they wanted, fair or not: an out-of-touch millionaire. This poll suggests that strategy might be working. 

Like Robert, I'm not sure Witt had anywhere to go but up in the 4th. His polling in July was alarmingly low and suggested that Democrats hardly knew anything about him. Three months and many more campaign stops later, that's changed significantly and now the race is a dead heat. 

I actually think Westerman has to be alarmed by this. In the same time — and when he could have run away with the race — Westerman didn't move voter opinion in his favor. That means the momentum is with Witt, and with two weeks to go, it's the more advantageous position. The question will be what Witt's campaign, the DCCC, and third-party groups can do to get him across the finish line.

Robert: Looking at the governor’s race poll released today by Talk Business/Hendrix, I see a race solidifying for Asa Hutchinson. 

Hutchinson has increased his lead in the Talk Business poll from July by 3 points (from 46 to 49), but perhaps most notably, Ross has stayed flat at 41 percent.

Looking at polling averages, Ross has only gotten more than 42 percent of the vote one time in the past nine polls. There just seems to be a hard ceiling that he can’t break through.  

Independents — a key constituency that will help determine the winner in this race — are also breaking Hutchinson’s way, 55 percent to 32 percent. 

Democrats continue to insist that turnout will be different in 2014, giving them a boost at the polls. But while that could have a net effect if true, it’s hard to see how turnout can overcome such a wide gap like we’re seeing in this race.

Blake: The Talk Business/Hendrix College poll sampled 2,075 likely voters and Asa Hutchinson is ahead 49-41. The only other poll to get close to that large of a sample was the CBS News/NY Times/YouGov poll from early October that sampled 1,991 likely voters. 

In that poll, Hutchinson maintained an 11-point lead, 49-38. The size of the lead is important, but in both polls Hutchinson was at 49 percent while Ross hovered in the high 30s to low 40s.

And when we consider the last nine non-partisan polls dating back to early September, Hutchinson has held an average lead of 6.4 percent. None of that bodes well for Ross. 

But with early voting underway, the Democrats remain optimistic. One reason: turnout is already ahead of 2010, including in key Democratic areas, and Democrats remain confident in the number of new voters they believe will mobilize over the next two weeks — people who might not be appropriately factored into any polling. It is early, of course, but if this trend continues, it will narrow the gap between these two candidates. 

But considering the matter realistically, I think the key question is whether Hutchinson was able to build a large enough lead, as evidenced by these polls, to withstand a Democratic surge, no matter the size.

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)
(Blake Rutherford is vice president of The McLarty Companies and previously was chief of staff to the Arkansas attorney general. You can follow him on Twitter at BlakeRutherford. His opinion column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)