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What’s Likely to Mobilize Voter Turnout in Arkansas? (Heather Yates On Politics)

4 min read

Elections are hard to predict, and voter turnout can be even harder. But a few variables can offer insight. Ahead of the election, I’m looking at how these factors could play out in Arkansas. 

There’s a lot of business on the Arkansas ballot this fall — assuming they survive court challenges, there could be five issues on the ballot, in addition to all Arkansas constitutional officers and U.S. House races. But voter turnout in Arkansas will come down to this essential question: are voters’ preferences different than those of the party in power?

National vs. Local Focus
There’s considerable tension between national and local issues when it comes to midterms. The national forces playing out in Arkansas include the president’s popularity, the perception of economic strength and the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But it’s highly probable that this midterm election will be more about local issues in Arkansas, rather than a memorandum on the party in power.

Across the country, Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the high court has become a new flashpoint in the midterms, but in Arkansas, without a Senate race on the ballot, it may have little effect. Given the president’s popularity here and the traditional, conservative social culture, most Arkansas voters likely view Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a positive. It’s also very probable that conservative voters interpret the confirmation as the president’s fulfilled campaign promise to nominate conservative judges to the Supreme Court. 

But another constituency to watch is suburban women voters. New data suggests that this voting bloc — a group that was key to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory — might be retreating from the Republican Party. If there is backlash to Kavanaugh, it could be in that bloc (though in deep-red Arkansas, any effect would be marginal).

In the congressional races, there are two tactics on messaging aimed at amplifying either a national or a local focus. 

First, Republican incumbents are counting on Arkansas voters’ penchant to reject the national political establishment by linking Democratic challengers to the minority party leadership, especially Nancy Pelosi. This is particularly noticeable in Arkansas’ 2nd Congressional District. The tension between national and local issues is prominent in campaign advertising. 

While the Republican narrative emphasizes nationalized connections between party establishment and challengers, Democratic candidates emphasize personalized, human-interest styles to appeal to voters. Democrats seek to locale their campaign narrative, choosing not to link GOP incumbents to anti-Trump rhetoric, which likely wouldn’t play well in a state where the president’s popularity remains high.

Forces at Work in Arkansas 
Typically, the president’s party is vulnerable in the second year of a new administration. Voters tend to punish the party in power if implemented policies fall out of favor with the electorate. 

National forecasts expect the trend to hold, predicting the Democrats will gain seats in the U.S. House, but not in the Senate. But in Arkansas, the incumbent party and the president remain on solid footing. Support for Trump runs about 10 points higher of the national average at 52 percent approval. 

Presidential job approval will motivate varied trends in turnout. Strong economic performance, or the perception of it, can bode well for the president’s party and will likely help incumbents in November. Although Trump’s tariffs and hardline rhetoric toward trade partners doing business in Arkansas introduce some uncertainty into local markets, constituent industries in the state don’t seem to be acutely concerned; in fact, they remain cautiously optimistic that long-term benefits will ultimately outweigh present uncertainty. 

Local ballot issues could be the most compelling force mobilizing voter turnout this cycle. Voters will be asked to consider three citizen-initiated measures addressing term limits, gambling and the minimum wage, and two legislatively referred amendments on voter ID and tort reform. 

A Pulaski County Circuit Court judge disqualified and removed the tort reform proposal from the ballot, an action that’s been appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. Whatever happens with that, voters will decide at least four substantive issues next month, and polls show that the term limits and voter ID proposals are likely to pass.

Turnout Matters 
Voter turnout in midterm elections is typically lower than in general elections, and this year may be no different. A casual survey of a few county clerks’ offices around the state reveals that 2018 is not a remarkable year for voter registration, and in some counties, voter registration was higher in 2014, suggesting low levels of voter interest.

While that may paint a bleak picture of voter participation, candidates’ campaigns try to motivate supporters. In any election, the most basic formula for victory is to mobilize more supporters than your opponent. Specific things encourage turnout. Some have much to do with the individual candidates (their likability, their stance on specific policies). But other issues, including larger state level or national forces, can motivate turnout. In Arkansas, it could turn out to be the year of the ballot measure.

What Counts on Election Day? 
Voter turnout depends on voters’ appraisals of risk and liability associated with the status quo. Election results will be determined by voters’ assessments of the incumbent party, taking a personal inventory of policy preferences, and deciding whether those preferences align with any of the candidates or measures featured on the ballot. 

Heather E. Yates (@heatheryatesphd) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Central Arkansas and the author of “The Politics of Emotions, Candidates, and Choices,” which is available at Palgrave and Amazon.
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