Free & Clear: January 2014

Deciding which size is the best fit
By John Hood

In a matter of weeks, the 2014 election cycle will begin with candidates filing for county, state and federal offices. In North Carolina, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The re-election bid of freshman Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan will help decide whether her party will retain control of the U.S. Senate. The re-election bid of southeastern North Carolina’s Democratic congressman, Mike McIntyre, will help determine the fate of the Republican majority in the U.S. House. At the state level, the GOP’s large General Assembly majorities will answer to voters after two years of momentous legislation and raucous debate. Even local races will draw unprecedented attention, given that it will be the first time since Reconstruction that Republicans will be in a position to re-elect majorities on most of the state’s county boards of commissioners.

If the past is any guide, the next few months of political journalism about the 2014 midterms will feature extensive coverage of the operational aspects of campaigns: candidate recruitment, fundraising, independent expenditures, grassroots organization, social media and broadcast advertising. I’ll be a frequent consumer and sometime producer of such punditry.

At its core, the 2014 election cycle promises to be a clash of philosophies about the role of government. For those who believe that enlarging it is the best way to solve problems, President Barack Obama’s health-care law is a welcome reform destined to produce not only broader access to better, more affordable medical care but also electoral benefits for those who support it. And for those who believe that reducing the size, scope and cost of government is the best way to promote economic growth, the policy mix enacted by the state legislature in the last three years is destined to produce not only greater employment and higher household incomes but also electoral benefits for those who supported it.

How can ideas that seem so opposed coexist in the same political system? Because in the minds of many voters, they aren’t opposites. Unless you are an anarchist, you probably believe that government has an important role to play in daily life. And unless you are a college professor, you probably believe that expansive plans for government often go awry because they ignore human nature, the need for individual incentive to produce and excel and the impossibility of central planners to acquire the information necessary to out-guess the market.

As has so often been pointed out, politics is like football. Successful teams combine a ground game (getting your partisan base out), a passing game (broadcasting your message to swing voters) and a strong defense (rebutting the other side’s attacks with traditional and social media). In high-turnout presidential-election years, partisan voters and independents who reliably vote either Democratic or Republican make up about 85% of the electorate. In midterm years, however, partisan bases compile an even-larger share. Fewer than 10% of voters are truly up for grabs. They have a mixture of views and tend not to pay close attention to political events.

In North Carolina’s midterms, will those voters swing toward Democrats or Republicans? It’s too early to predict the outcome but not to see how the parties will compete for their favor.
Democrats expect public opinion on Obamacare to shift to neutral or even positive over the next few months as HealthCare.gov improves and the uninsured enroll in health plans or Medicaid. Democrats will run against the Republican leadership in the U.S. House, whom they’ll blame for the partial government shutdown of October 2013, and the Republican leadership of the state legislature, whom they’ll blame for inadequate economic recovery and insufficient school funding.

Republicans expect public opinion on Obamacare to remain negative, so they’ll use the issue to portray Democrats as incompetent, imprudent and out of touch with reality. At the state level, Republicans will argue that the tax cuts, regulatory reforms and other policies they have enacted are bearing fruit in rates of economic growth and job creation that now exceed the national average. They’ll also defend their reform strategy for education — and tell voters that they boosted teacher pay in two of the past three years (assuming that, as seems likely, the legislature passes a pay raise in its short session this summer).

Historical precedent with two-term presidents argues for Republican success. But Democrats in North Carolina are impassioned and highly motivated. For the first time in their lives, they are contending with a Republican governor as well as Republican majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and most county governments. After disappointing election cycles in 2010 and 2012, Democrats are desperate to put some points on the board in November. They have decided to go long on the idea of big government.

John Hood is chairman and president of the John Locke Foundation. You can reach him at jhood@johnlocke.org.