The US Senate race in North Carolina is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in history with over $30 million spent by Labor Day on advertising. In addition, national media are focused on the race, including the first debate between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis. Despite the amount of money spent and the attention paid to the debate, the race is essentially dead-even.
In recent weeks, the campaigns and the independent expenditure groups have made subtle, but important shifts in campaign strategy that indicates that both sides recognize that turning the right groups out to vote will determine the outcome of the race.
The Tillis campaign has pivoted toward attacking Kay Hagan on foreign policy–specifically on her failure to attend Senate Armed Forces committee hearings and her lack of attention to the ISIS threat. Current polling data suggest a gender gap in terms of how men and women want the United States to deal with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the campaign’s focus is now in turning out men on the security issue.
In the last two weeks the Hagan campaign and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee have coordinated a major radio buy targeting African Americans by continuing to attack Tillis’ record on education and also to raise Tillis’ role in passing sweeping reforms to voting laws in North Carolina, including the Voter ID component that many minorities feel will suppress their turnout.
Outside groups have also gotten involved with ads targeting very specific demographic groups in North Carolina. The National Rifle Association has reserved $1.4 million in North Carolina, primarily in Raleigh-Durham and Greensboro markets, to support the Tillis campaign. Planned Parenthood has invested $500,000 in the Senate race, primarily in the Raleigh-Durham market to support the reelection of Kay Hagan. The issues of gun ownership and women’s reproductive rights are heavily gendered issues and indicate the importance of motivating these groups.
Analysis of voter turnout in 2010, along with examining how the campaigns and independent expenditure groups have sharpened their respective focuses, indicates that seven counties in the state will largely determine outcome of the Senate campaign–Cumberland, Edgecombe, Guilford, Halifax, Pitt, Wake, and Wayne counties.
Guilford and Wake counties are large counties with significant numbers of suburban voters where the turnout of men and women will significantly impact the outcome of the Senate race. In 2010, Guilford County men and women turned out significantly less than the state averages for both. Only 41 percent of the registered men and 40 percent of the registered women turned out. If either side can create a 3-4 percent gender gap, it could significantly impact the outcome of the race. Wake County, on the other hand, saw turnout for men and women at rates higher than the state average with 48 percent of the men and women turning out. With women registered voters outnumbering men by over 45,000 voters in Wake County, continued high turnout of women voters could give Kay Hagan the margin she needs to win the race. The Tillis campaign must significantly increase the male voters in both counties if he hopes to win the Senate seat.
The other five counties–Cumberland, Edgecombe, Halifax, Pitt, and Wayne–have high percentages of African American voters, who turned out, with the exception of in Cumberland County, at or near the state average. Slight increases in African American voters in these counties could also give the Hagan campaign a comfortable margin. The Hagan campaign would feel very confident if the African American turnout in these counties was 46 percent or higher, while the Tillis campaign would benefit from a turnout in the low 40 percent range.
Identity politics makes people very uncomfortable and causes people to criticize candidates that appeal to that form of campaigning. The reality is, that in 2014, the US Senate race is not about either Thom Tillis or Kay Hagan, but about the identity voters than choose to vote on November 4.
In a headline story, Vanity Fair reported today that Roger Ailes of Fox News stated that Sarah Palin could remain employed at the network as long as she remained attractive and popular. In the last four months, Palin has generated publicity for her call for President Obama’s impeachment, her criticism of the administration’s plans for battling ISIS, and even for an alleged brawl at a social event. If Ailes bases his employment of Palin on her ability to attract attention, then she will be an enduring fixture at Fox News.
Every semester, I start my classes by asking my college students about political leaders they admire. For some students, the question causes them much grief as they cannot generate any names, while others give predictable, if partisan, responses. My liberal students cite President Obama and Hillary Clinton and my conservative students typically split their responses between a number of Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016–Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush. These are predictable responses because their names are in the news and, with the exception of President Obama, they are all campaigning for president in 2016. The name that continues to surprise me is that Sarah Palin often gets mentioned more than almost everyone else with the exception of President Obama.
If I were to ask friends around my age–conservative and liberal–about political leaders they admired, I dare say Sarah Palin would not register. I suspect that most people over the age of thirty would reflect the findings of the August Public Policy Polling survey of Alaska citizens that gave Sarah Palin a 26 percent approval rating. This split between younger and older citizens, although now scientifically validated, is interesting to me and I have several observations about why this exists.
1. Younger citizens don’t distinguish between entertainers and political leaders. Palin has long since become an entertainer for most in my age group, not just because of her appearance in a reality television show in 2012. She does not need to prove herself as legitimate in the political world–this from students who know nothing or very little of her work as governor of Alaska and were 12 or 13 years old when she ran as John McCain’s running mate.
2. It is not about age or appearance to the millennials. Sarah Palin is not considered by 20-year olds to be a young politician. Although my students wouldn’t consider her to be worthy of a place in the Smithsonian, they comment about her being a grandmother. They also do not consider her physical appearance to be particularly noteworthy. As one of my conservative students said: “For an old politician, she ain’t bad.”
3. For many young people, Sarah Palin’s enduring popularity is because she represents qualities they see in themselves. They see her as a political pundit, reality show star, multi-tasking mother and grandmother, and self-promoter. Millennials view themselves as the ultimate multi-taskers who view change as expected.
In many ways Sarah Palin continues to be a political Rorschach Test for all Americans. Roger Ailes sees her as a ratings tool for Fox News, political elites see her as an object of ridicule, and the nation’s youth see her as a model for how they want to live their lives.