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Professors discuss midterm elections

Sam Stryker | Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The 2010 midterm elections might not be the bloodbath for Democrats that many analysts predict, American Studies professor Matthew Storin, said Tuesday.

Storin, along with journalism professor and former South Bend Tribune reporter Jack Colwell and political science professor David Nickerson, offered insights on this year’s elections Tuesday night at the first lecture in a series titled “Pizza, Pop and Politics.” 

Storin said Americans hold five common assumptions about this year’s election: that the Democrats will suffer massive losses, there is a gap in enthusiasm between the Democrats and Republicans, this year’s election could be a defining one for political races in the future, that the Tea Party is a game changer and the Tea Party could also cause a “civil war” among Republicans.

Storin said the notion that Democrats could suffer massive losses may hold true, but a lot of political pundits are biased by personal investment in the election.

“A lot of predictions and analysis is colored by what people want to happen,” he said.

Storin also said this election is unique in that polls are showing that voters are increasingly dissatisfied with their own representatives in Congress. He said under normal circumstances Americans don’t approve of Congress as a whole but support their representatives.

Despite the Democrat’s troubles, Storin said there is some hope for the party.

“We live in a time of short attention spans. Maybe by November people might swing the other way,” he said.

Storin mentioned enthusiasm is off-pace for Democrats, mainly because of the probable decline in turnout of young voters.

“There is going to be a huge drop-off in younger voters,” he said. “That is seen as one reason why Democrats are expected to suffer.”

Storin added that one of the reasons this election is viewed as a defining election is that the majority party typically loses an average of 12 seats in midterm elections.

“Americans like divided government,” he said. “Right now, they don’t have divided government.”

Despite this, he said the long-term impact of the election, especially in terms of how it might impact the president, is being overstated.

“Even though Obama is getting criticized a lot, he still is at a 46 percent approval rating in tough times,” Storin said. “It is hard to predict that a strong Republican result could impact him down the line in two years.”

Storin closed his commentary with some discussion of the Tea Party. He said the political group has had some slip ups, but could make some strong gains this November, doing more good for the Republicans than bad.

“You could make a point that there is harm [to the Republicans], but they are creating a great deal of excitement in some states with more conventional candidates,” he said.

He said the reason the Tea Party has enjoyed recent success is that it embodies apathy.

“The influence of special interest groups on congressional votes is huge, and the one group who is not represented is the ordinary people,” Storin said. “The one group who comes close to representing these people is the Tea Party.”

Colwell started his commentary by overturning the misconception that political races don’t gear up until after Labor Day, stating some races have been determined as early as Labor Day of last year. 

He also said part of the GOP’s expected success involves how women usually tend to vote Democrat.

“The Republican tide started to become a tsunami. The enthusiasm gap involves the gender gap,” he said. “Polls now show females are less likely to get to the polls. They seem disillusioned.”

Colwell said the main question for this election is the margin of victory Republicans will ultimately enjoy.

“It’s going to be a Republican year, there is no doubt about it,” he said. “What we’re talking about is the size of their victory.”

Colwell said the local congressional race between current congressman Joe Donnelly and challenger Jackie Walorski could be one that ultimately decides whether the House turns Republican or remains Democrat, and between $10 and $20 million could be spent between the two campaigns.

“The congressional race here is one of the premier house races in the country,” he said.

Nickerson spoke on the importance of campaigns and turnout, saying ultimately it is not what the candidates do that matters as much as the state of the nation.

“The campaign stuff doesn’t matter,” he said. “What does matter is the state of the economy and how happy people are.”

Part of the reason that campaigning is difficult is the very nature of convincing people to change personal or political views.

“Persuasion is super hard. People are pretty set as Democrats or Republicans,” Nickerson said.

Nickerson’s closing statements related the nature of campaigns to go after specific voters to the enthusiasm gap Democrats are suffering from.

“When they target their messages, they are very narrowly targeted,” he said. “This makes the enthusiasm gap very important.”