Seven questions about the 2010 elections

A political scientist's perspective on how journalists should approach the midterm races

Published May 3, 2010 12:04PM (EDT)

Week before last I had a conversation with a Washington Post reporter whose beat for the 2010 campaign is voters. She’ll be traveling to districts and interviewing voters throughout the election. Here are some questions I suggested she might consider.

1. Will the "enthusiasm" gap in turnout persist, especially as both parties begin mobilizing their respective partisans in earnest?

2. There are aggregate relationships between economic growth (not unemployment!) and presidential approval on the one hand, and seat gains and losses by the president’s party on the other. How much will either factor change in the months ahead? (This wasn't really amenable to her beat, so I suggested the next question.)

3. Given that the economy is still weak, how are incumbent Democrats dealing with it? Ignoring the issue in favor of others? If so, which issues? Talking about the economy but using particular kinds of frames to frame it in more favorable terms (e.g., blame Bush)? Lynn Vavreck's book suggests the importance of how presidential candidates do or do not discuss "the fundamentals." Her theory could be usefully applied to congressional candidates as well.

4. How much will congressional races reflect a nationalized agenda, particularly coming from the GOP?

5. On the flip side, what are the local dynamics in key races? Nationalized agendas are often visible to political commentators but not to voters. For example, in 1994 polls showed that most voters weren’t familiar with the Contract with America.)

6. When times are bad for the president’s party, the opposite party should be able to recruit more qualified challengers. Is this happening? It should be evident in their prior political experience, fundraising, name recognition, etc.

7. It is challenging to identify the effects of key congressional votes on voters’ decisions, and its those votes that often make up a nationalized agenda. But such effects appear to exist — especially for members of Congress who remain loyal to the president on these votes even though their districts lean in the opposite direction. (In 1994, vulnerable Democrats suffered in they voted for the Clinton budget, NAFTA, and/or the crime bill, according to research by Gary Jacobson.) Will Democratic incumbents suffer for their support of the president’s agenda?

We also talked about useful things to do with the sort of qualitative data she'll be gathering in her interviews. I suggested returning to the same place more than once and interviewing the same people if possible. We also discussed the value of following on voters' comments with questions that force them to explain or justify their views. That's a bit tricky because clearly a reporter doesn't want to seem antagonistic, but it takes advantage of the in-person interview by doing something that pollsters rarely do.

I welcome other suggestions in comments.

By John Sides

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2010 Elections Academia Media Criticism