Victory wave not a slam dunk for GOP

August 1, 2014

RALEIGH — As North Carolina’s legislative session draws to a close and we enter the last quarter of the 2014 campaign, Democrats are hoping it will be a rerun of 1998. Republicans are hoping that it will be a rerun of 2010.

Bu it may not look much like either cycle.

Let’s examine the Democratic scenario first. In 1998, Republicans held both chambers of the U.S. Congress and a number of legislative chambers, including the North Carolina House. Bill Clinton was completing his sixth year in office, which usually bodes well for the party out of the White House. By the middle of a second term, a president’s base is typically deflated, the opposition base is energized, and swing voters rediscover the virtues of checks and balances.

But that’s not what happened in 1998. The impeachment trial of President Clinton energized both party bases and turned off swing voters, some of whom punished the GOP and some of whom just stayed home. Democrats escaped the usual six-year-itch and gained five congressional seats. They also flipped some legislative chambers back to their column, including the North Carolina House.

See any similarity to what Democrats are trying to do this year? Most of the talk of impeaching President Obama for failing to enforce federal law is coming from Dems, liberal activists, and the media outlets that carry their water, not from the Right. That’s designed to enrage the Democratic base and get them to turn out. Here in North Carolina, something similar is underway with the Moral Monday movement. It’s mostly about boosting turnout among Democratic-leaning voters, not convincing current Republican leaders to change their policies.

I’m not criticizing the Left for pursuing this strategy — it’s the way electoral politics works — although I am doubtful that it will achieve results comparable to 1998. President Obama’s dismal approval ratings are much lower than President Clinton’s were back then, as are the nation’s rate of economic growth and America’s standing in the world. Talk about impeachment is not the same thing as an impeachment trial.

As for the state level, Republican legislators and their supporters will spend millions of dollars communicating the following message to North Carolina voters:

We have just enacted one of the largest teacher pay raises in state history, one that doesn’t just spend more money on the same system but fundamentally changes it to make starting salaries more competitive and reward teachers for good performance. We were able to do that because of four years of fiscal discipline. North Carolina is also beating the national and regional averages on most measures of economic growth. That’s happening in part because we reformed government to make North Carolina a more attractive place to work, invest, and create jobs.

However debatable the merits of these policies may be, I think this message will play pretty well with most voters who turn out this year. However, I don’t share the view of some conservative analysts and Republican strategists that the 2014 cycle will closely resemble that of 2010, when voter outrage about federal deficits, bailouts, and Obamacare led to massive GOP gains in state and federal elections.

For one thing, the 2010 cycle featured many pick-up opportunities for Republicans — U.S. House, U.S. Senate, governorships, and legislative seats. Except for the U.S. Senate, those opportunities are far more constrained in 2014. Most of the “getable” seats have already been gotten.

Furthermore, at this point in 2010, Republicans were clearly ahead of Democrats in voter intensity. On July 31, 2010, the Rs led the Ds by an average 5 percentage points in the generic ballot questions for Congress. On July 31, 2014, however, the Ds led the Rs by 2.5 points. That doesn’t mean the Ds will outpoll the Rs on Election Day. Even in late July, most polls sample registered voters, not the voters most likely to turn out in the midterm election. The final electorate will probably be more Republican than current registered-voter samples.

But if Republicans assume they are riding an inevitable wave to electoral triumph in 2014, they are fooling themselves.

John Hood is executive director for the John Locke Foundation.