By Philip Rucker, Robert Costa and Matea Gold
August 9, 2014 at 5:30 PM
Ask voters in North Carolina’s Research Triangle what November’s midterm elections are about and one will tell you drones. A second will say closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yet another, the middle-class squeeze.
At a Sunday school classroom in Ypsilanti, Mich., voters are concerned about deteriorating roads, teen sex parties, truancy in schools and violent crime. Six hundred miles west at a Republican campaign office in Urbandale, Iowa, people fear that America is on an irreversible decline — like Germany after World War I, as one man predicted.
Across Colorado, voters are thinking about a whole other set of concerns — veterans’ care, driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, the soaring cost of housing, the erosion of Christian conservative values, Russia’s rise, and fracking.
This is an election about nothing — and everything. Unlike in previous midterm election years, no dominant national theme has emerged for the 2014 campaign, according to public opinion surveys as well as interviews last week with scores of voters in five key states and with dozens of politicians and party strategists.
Even without a single salient issue, a heavy cloud of economic anxiety and general unease is hanging over the fiercely partisan debate. Listening to voters, you hear a downbeat tone to everything political — the nation’s economy, infrastructure and schools; the crises flaring around the world; the evolving culture wars at home; immigration laws; President Obama and other elected leaders in Washington.
No dominant issue leading into midterm elections
“I probably feel the way everyone else feels,” said Lindsay Perry, a 32-year-old Democrat, as she tried to keep her 9-month-old son from tipping over her salad last week at a Durham, N.C., bakery. “Clearly, it’s really dysfunctional and it’s essentially driven by monied interests at this point. It’s really just discouraging. It just seems clear the people’s interests aren’t being represented.”
Over the past 20 years, every midterm election has had a driving theme. In 1994, Newt Gingrich led Republicans to power in a backlash against President Clinton’s domestic agenda. In 1998, it was a rebuke to Republicans for their drive to impeach Clinton. Terrorism motivated voters in 2002, while anger over the Iraq war propelled Democratic gains in 2006. And 2010 turned into an indictment of Obama’s economic stewardship and, for many, his health-care plan.
As long as it has been polling, Gallup has asked voters to state their “most important problem.” For the first midterm cycle since 1998, no single issue registers with more than 20 percent of voters. Immigration was the top concern for 17 percent of those Gallup surveyed in July, while 16 percent said government dissatisfaction and 15 percent the economy.
The result could be an especially unpredictable final 12 weeks of the campaign. With voter turnout expected to be low and several big races virtually tied, campaigns everywhere are searching for pressure points — by taking advantage of news events or colorful and, at times, highly parochial issues — to motivate their base voters to go to the polls.
In Iowa, a neighborhood dispute over chickens wandering into the yard of Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democratic Senate candidate, has become a flap much discussed by Republicans. Democrats in Colorado have zeroed in on Senate candidate and GOP Rep. Cory Gardner’s past support for the personhood movement, which gives fertilized eggs individual rights. Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an Iraq veteran locked in a tight race with Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), has used the recent airstrikes in Iraq as an opportunity to criticize Obama’s “lack of overall Middle East strategy.”
Democrats, who are eager to drive African Americans to the polls, have been sounding the alarm over threats to impeach Obama, even though Republican House leaders insist that is not a real possibility.
“The African American turnout in 2014 will have to be at the level of a presidential year turnout for us to do well,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), the assistant House Democratic leader. “We’ve got to carry a strong message and organize, not agonize, and be ready to take advantage of any opportunities Republicans give us.”
In talks with voters, there was some evidence that the impeachment issue was resonating with African Americans, though it barely registered more broadly.
The lack of a dominant issue also means that campaigns could be more susceptible than in other years to events this fall. Republicans believe, for instance, that if Obama signs an executive order granting legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, as White House officials have indicated he might, it will create a huge backlash against Democrats.
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