McConnell’s Road to Re-election Appears More Secure

With the November election drawing close, more polls are consistently showing incumbent Mitch McConnell with a comfortable lead. Early on, many Democrats considered the Senate minority leader to be vulnerable and expected a close race between McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Grimes, especially with McConnell’s approval and favorability ratings so low. The numbers below have been taken from pollster.com to show the latest polls favoring a McConnell victory.

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The New York Times published an article on Monday explaining McConnell’s clear advantage in his Senate race.

Taking the average of every survey over the last month, McConnell is leading by 5 points. The Upshot’s Senate election forecasting model, Leo, now gives McConnell a 93 percent chance of winning re-election on November 4th. This prediction comes not only because of his polling advantage but also because the fundamentals of the race seem to point to a McConnell victory.

As we discussed in an earlier post, incumbent defeats are highly unprecedented. The NYT article reports that no incumbent senator representing the opposing party of the White House has lost re-election in a state that leans as strongly against the incumbent president’s party as Kentucky does. Beyond the fact that McConnell has incumbency to his advantage, his own electoral history gives reason to be doubtful of a loss at this point. In 2008, McConnell easily won re-election under difficult conditions. 2008 was a far worse year for the Republican Party and McConnell’s favorability ratings were in the low 40s, as they are now.

These are not the only reasons that McConnell is at an advantage; the NYT report also argues that coal country in Kentucky will likely play a very important role.

This stretch of country in eastern Kentucky was one of the nation’s most reliably Democratic areas in the 20th century. When Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were elected president, it was by winning these “coal country” counties. Since Clinton however, Democrats have fared far worse. This is because of the national Democratic Party’s support for environmental regulations on coal-fired power plants that are popular in eastern Kentucky.

Unlike other states, there are not many places in Kentucky where Democrats are making gains to counteract their losses. In fact, Democrats are generally suffering losses across the entire state and the president’s approval rating is certainly not helping matters.

This is not to say that something will not happen to change the tide between now and Election Day. At this point, however, McConnell’s path to victory looks increasingly clear.

Campaign Advertising: The Effectiveness of Partisan Yard Signs

 

Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Grimes have put their campaigns to the test as this “final third” of the election season begins. Whether it is through print media, television commercials, radio ads, or digital media, campaigns have to assess where to spend the most time and money in terms of advertising. While we have seen that both candidates can raise money to finance such extravagant campaigns, it is important to examine whether not the way in which they choose to spend that cash in the upcoming weeks will help determine who will take the election. This is the start of a small series where I will delve into various forms of campaign advertising approaches and evaluate each of their effectiveness according to political science research.

Today’s topic: Yard Signs. What do political yard signs do for a campaign in terms of advertising?

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Political yard signs surface our neighborhoods and streets well before the final third of the election season starts, however, are they serving any purpose? According to political research, partisan yard signs have little to no effect on campaigns. Sean Quinn of the FiveThirtyEight blog writes, “Until yard signs sprout little legs and go to the polls on Election Day…they are just a nice little decoration.”  He goes on to explain that the people who are going to campaign offices to acquire yard signs are, in all reality, useless, because these people are going to put their yard signs on display, and then think that qualifies as enough participation, rather than go and canvass the streets. Todd Makse and Anand Sokhey agree with Quinn.10264652_728174713871708_8147109962527504615_n Their research shows that people are displaying their yard signs as a way of participation and expression, rather than for the purpose of swaying voters and getting people to the polls—the primary issues of campaign offices—which makes partisan yard signs really nothing more than lawn décor, rather than active political participation.

Interestingly, the same narrative cannot be told for non-partisan political yard signs. According to Costas Panagopoulos of Harvard University, non-partisan get-out-the-vote yard signs do have an impact on voters and campaigns. Panagopoulos’ experiment tested 14 pairs of similar polling sites in New York, with one of each pair having get-out-the-vote non-partisan yard signs displayed the day before the election, and the other being left the same as a control variable. In the end, Panagopoulos came up with  conclusive evidence that the get-out-the-vote yard signs did increase voter turnout in the sites where the non-partisan signs were displayed, as compared to turnout numbers in the control sites.

What can we learn from this? Partisan yard signs are for the benefit of the individual, not the party or campaign. While in theory this seems like it would be a great use of resources due to the fact that this is 24/7, basically free, advertising, in reality, it sways very few, if any, voters. Thus, campaigns might consider spending minimal time and resources on these yard signs, and instead put effort somewhere else where the potential payoff may be higher.

ISIS: An Alarming Threat that Could Affect Midterm Elections

With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria, I found myself wondering what the Senate minority leader had to say about this foreign affairs crisis. ISIS has now beheaded two American journalists and is continuing their threats by vowing to “not stop until we quench our thirst for your blood”.

Mitch McConnell said Congress is anxious to see what plan the president will propose. “My guess is it will require some kind of authorization from us, maybe some kind of funding, and I think if it’s a credible plan to go after these killers, he’s very likely to be supported on a bipartisan basis,” said McConnell. He further states, “I approve of what he is doing so far…and I hope he will do a lot more.”

McConnell’s support of Obama is unprecedented in the sense that he very rarely publicly supports the president on any matter, especially foreign affairs. However, this support for the president in times of crisis is a familiar concept in political science that is referred to as the “Rally ‘Round The Flag” effect. This increased support for the president in the short-term comes in response to periods of international crisis or war. Might this syndrome also affect Congressional leaders, especially those who have long-held their seat in the Congress?

It is difficult to find information regarding whether or not there is also an increased level of support in response to foreign affairs crises among all political elites, such as United States Senators. It is possible, though, that McConnell may be given a slight advantage with the recent crises abroad. McConnell has enjoyed a long tenure in the Senate and has thus moved his way up in the ranks to Senate minority leader. During this time of turmoil, will Kentucky voters be apt to remove from office one of the most powerful legislators or will voters “rally around their leaders” in hopes of a plan being drawn to deal with the terrorists? We may not know how much of an effect these problems in the Middle East will have on Election Day in Kentucky but it’s logical to assume that the “Rally ‘Round The Flag” effect may cause at least some Kentucky voters to vote to keep their strong leader in the Senate. Further research, though, would be needed to confirm this.

Entertaining An Audience: The Effectiveness of Online Events and the KFB Forum

This past week Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Grimes participated in the Kentucky Farm Bureau “Measure the Candidates” forum. This event, which took place in Louisville, KY at the KFB Headquarters, was strictly limited to the KFB Board of Directors, selected staff from each campaign, and selected members of the press. In addition, the forum aired only online. Whether or not the online events are effective, however, is an open question.

The event, moderated by KFB President, Mark Haney, started with each candidate giving a five minute opening statement, followed by questions from KFB Board members and then a closing statement. The questions asked ranged from international trade, to immigration, to healthcare, to environmental issues, and others, all encompassed around farm policy.

While McConnell and Grimes did agree on some issues, that was not a universal theme. For example, McConnell advocated for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform saying that is the most feasible way to get the legislation to pass, while Grimes supported a comprehensive immigration reform plan. Additionally, when the issue of healthcare approached, McConnell gave no mercy for “Obamacare” but Grimes was less tempered with the subject due to the success of Kynect in Kentucky.

While McConnell was able to speak of the legislation he passed that helped Kentucky farmers, such as the Tobacco Buyout, the higher exemption on the Estate Tax, and the passage of the Farm Bill, it seemed that Grimes came into the forum with a hard-set agenda. As a response to nearly every question asked, Grimes found a way to insert her dissatisfaction with McConnell’s attendance record at Senate agricultural committee hearings, and that under McConnell’s watch the most recent passage of the Farm Bill was delayed. McConnell responded that Grimes’ “friend and supporter, Harry Reid, must not have told her about how party leaders typically deal with committee work.” While this did not stop Grimes from continuing to interject comments concerning his attendance record, when asked by the press after the forum how many times she has missed work as Secretary of State while campaigning, Charly Norton, Grimes’ press secretary, immediately cut off the question and moved to a different reporter.

This was the first time in the Senate race that the two candidates appeared at a joint forum to discuss issues pertinent to Kentuckians. While the KFB emphasized that this was a forum (not a debate), and stated explicitly that they do not endorse political candidates, it cannot be compared to the debates we will see in the fall. McConnell arguably had nothing to gain from this forum (however, showing the KFB community that he continues to support agriculture initiatives certainly plays to his advantage) but it is a different story for Grimes. A forum such as this where the two candidates appear together gave Grimes a chance to show Kentucky that she could take on the seasoned Senator McConnell and show that she is well versed on the issues Kentuckians face, specifically agricultural issues. While it can be debated as to whether she proved herself in this forum and held her own, it certainly can be said that it did not sink her.

Of course, one interesting question we might ask is: who was watching this forum? [1] The event did not have great publicity: it took place in a cramped boardroom not open to the public, the livestream began at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday when people were at work, and it was only online, not televised… Just from the logistics, it doesn’t seem that this forum was out to help either candidate.

According to the Pew Research Center, during the 2012 presidential election season it was reported that 65% of internet-using registered voters (55% of all registered voters) “have gone online this election season to watch videos related to the election campaign or political issues.” [2] While this seems like a decent turnout when considering streaming a forum online, it must be noted that out of that 65% of internet-using registered voters, only 28% “watch live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates.” It could be argued that 28% is quite a low proportion of the potential audience, and when you factor in that this event was for a Senate election (instead of a presidential election) and that the event was not widely publicized and took place during the work day, we may reasonably expect that the actual viewership of this event was likely much lower than 28%.

In conclusion, we may reasonably conclude that the forum likely did not hurt either candidate’s chances. While the logistics of the event were not set up to encourage a wide viewership, it must be noted that that was not the primary intention of the KFB. The KFB wanted to see how the candidates responded to agricultural issues, and seeing that both candidates accepted this invitation (while turning down several others), it is reasonable to conclude that both candidates acknowledge the importance of the rural vote in Kentucky politics.  As noted, this was the first time the two candidates appeared at the same event to discuss and interact with issues pertinent to Kentucky, and reassuringly, it is not the last time the two will appear together. This forum was just a preview of what is to come this fall with McConnell and Grimes accepting the KET invitation, where the publicity and viewership of the event will be greatly prioritized.

[FN1. It must be noted that the KFB supports this forum whenever there is a major race (gubernatorial races and congressional ), and the primary reason, once again, is not debate, but rather it is to see how high profile candidates react to issues important to KFB and its members. Therefore, the viewership of this event is not as imperative as it will be in future fall debates.]

[FN2. Even though this is for a presidential election, we can use this to estimate what may be the case for a Senate election. It should be noted that presidential elections have a much greater civic response than midterm elections.]

Elite Endorsements: Former President Bill Clinton Campaigns for Grimes

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Last week, Caroline and I attended Alison Grimes’ campaign event in Lexington at The Carrick House. There were roughly 400 in attendance at a luncheon at which former President Bill Clinton was a guest and spoke highly of Alison Grimes, his longtime friend. This friendship was forged in the 1980s when Clinton was governor of Arkansas and Jerry Lundergan, Grimes’ father, brought him up to Kentucky a number of times. When Grimes needed advice on a potential Senate run, she turned to this longtime friend who has been by her side since.

We sat with the rest of the press in attendance while other guests found their table and seat. The event began with a number of speakers. Kentucky’s Attorney General, Jack Conway, spoke followed by former governor of Kentucky, Martha Layne Collins, and finally current Kentucky governor Steve Besehar spoke. All of these speakers were touching on Mitch McConnell’s claim that it is not his job to create jobs for Kentuckians. 

An inspiring video of Grimes was projected and at the conclusion Grimes and Clinton made their entrance onto the stage to a standing ovation from the crowd. Both spoke regarding the necessity for Grimes in Washington to create jobs for Kentuckians, to get equal pay for equal work for women, to get veterans the benefits they deserve, and other promises to the potential voters in attendance. 

photo 1Grimes stated, “I’m not an empty dress. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m not a rubber stamp. One label I will proudly wear is that I am a Clinton Democrat,” to which the crowd responded very positively. Soon after, Clinton spoke of his friendship with the Lundergan family and his faith in Grimes as a candidate for the United States Senate. So how does Clinton’s stamp of approval affect Grimes’ campaign?

I earlier wrote a post discussing the effect of endorsements, and particularly the influence of elite endorsements, on a candidate’s campaign. The research we cited shows little evidence of any concrete link between an endorsement and increased voter turnout or increased turnout for a specific candidate. As I wrote earlier, though, this is not to undervalue the importance of endorsements for a candidate.

Elite endorsements, especially those coming from high-powered groups or politicians, carry more clout than do smaller organizations and less well-known individuals. For example, the larger the endorsement, such as that coming from a well-liked former president, the more benefits that might be attached such as campaign donations or manpower. The extra resources that come from these endorsements can prove to be helpful and may very well benefit a campaign. Although the existing research lacks clear evidence of a direct correlation between endorsement and voter turnout for a specific candidate, there is definitely a connection between the increased resources and the turnout for a specific candidate . Thus, while endorsements do not often directly lead to vote choices in Senate elections, they likely have an indirect effect through the additional resources that they provide to a campaign to mobilize and campaign.

Fancy Farm Picnic: The Unofficial Kick Off of Election Season

This weekend I made my first trip to Fancy Farm, Kentucky to take part in the 134th Annual Fancy Farm Picnic. This event, a fundraiser for St. Jerome Church, is also considered the informal start date of Kentucky’s campaign season, and receives national news coverage by inviting large crowds of supporters, the state’s political leaders and candidates, and, of course, serving 9 tons of barbeque. The picnic’s reputation held true once again this year, where candidates were not on the stage to talk calmly about their opponent, but rather each speech was full of political zingers, casting why the candidate was better than his/her opponent.Governor Steve Beshear (D-KY) set the tone of the event as the first speaker. He started off saying, “Excuse me just one minute,” walked over to where Senator Mitch McConnell was sitting and took a picture of himself and McConnell, and then said, “I’m sorry. I just had to get one last photo of the Senator before Kentucky voters retire him in November.” This opening brought the crowd alive, as Secretary Grimes and McConnell supporters alike chanted back to the Governor, both in support and opposition on his statement. Among the crowd there was a clear divide, with a majority of Grimes supports on one side, and McConnell supporters on the other.

When it was time for Grimes and McConnell to speak, the crowd became even more heated. Grimes, the first of the two to give her speech, started off saying,photo 1 (1) “And what a huge crowd…for Senator McConnell’s retirement party.” This was a staple of her presence at Fancy Farm. On theback of the t-shirts made for Grimes’ supporters, it had the same quote, as well as on the way to Fancy Farm, for the last eight miles, Grimes put up “mile-marking” signs indicating it was X amount of miles left until the McConnell retirement party. Grimes went on with many other political zingers in her opening minutes with comments such as “And Senator McConnell, with all this great barbeque, trust me, there is no way I’m going to leave here today an empty dress”, and “35 is my age, that’s also Senator McConnell’s approval rating.”

McConnell was not to be upstaged, however. He also came out firing back at Grimes. On the back of McConnell supporters’ t-shirts it read “Obama needs Alison Grimes. Kentucky 10445965_10204756159208741_232288675281412218_nneeds Mitch McConnell” and McConnell made the comparison between Grimes and Obama the staple of his speech. McConnell said, “By any standard, Barack Obama has been a disaster for our country. Now, if you think about it that’s what you get for electing someone with no experience. He was only two years into his first job, when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar? His campaign raised millions from extreme liberals. Sound familiar? He really didn’t have any qualifications. Sound familiar? And anytime he got in trouble and his inexperience became obvious, he called in Bill Clinton. Sound familiar?”

The true theatre of Fancy Farm, however, came from Senator Rand Paul who spoke after McConnell. Paul, campaigning on behalf of McConnell, provided the crowd with a bit of poetry. He started off saying, “There once was a woman who came from Kentucky, who thought in politics she’d be lucky. So she flew to L.A. for a Hollywood bash. She came home in a flash, with buckets of cash…To liberals she whispers ‘coal makes you sick.’ In Kentucky she claims ‘coal makes us tick.’” Paul continued with his poem and the crowd roared.

While the political speaking was the high point of the event, it was not just the politicians working the crowd, but their campaign staff, as well, as they armed the crowed with political paraphernalia. In my next post, I will address the effectiveness of political yard signs and other paraphernalia–is it serving any purpose?

Lexington HQ Opening for Grimes: An Analysis of Spending and Victory

This week Secretary of State Alison Grimes held an event to kick off her bus tour to the annual Fancy Farm picnic this weekend, as well as open her Lexington, Kentucky campaign headquarters. The event drew a couple hundred people, and speakers were lined up to help rally supporters. Upon arrival, volunteers asked whether you were registered to vote or not. If your answer was no they were prepared to assist you. The volunteers then lead you inside the headquarters where you could look around the office and then you were lead outside to wait for the speakers to begin.photo 1

 

Among the speakers at the event were Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen, Attorney General and 2015 gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, former Governor of Kentucky Martha Layne Collins, current Lt. Governor or Kentucky Jerry Abramson, and Grimes herself. Each of the speakers hit on issues which Grimes has prioritized in her campaign message, including women’s pay, minimum wage, student debt, creating jobs, and infrastructure developments, and then stated where they believed Senator McConnell had failed on each of these issues. The statement from Edelen, “Alison believes in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people…McConnell believes in a government of the few, by the few, and not for you” received a wave of cheer, and held the energy high throughout the event. When Grimes took the podium, she took on the issues already discussed in the event, but focused a large portion of her speech on women and job creation—two areas where she believes Senator McConnell has failed Kentucky.

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One of the comments made by Edelen was that, “This is going to be a turnout election.” He went on to say that while money was good and that a great deal of money was being spent on this election, it wasn’t about the money in this election, but rather “the race is going to be about people.” While this statement went over well with the crowd, from a political science perspective, it is not entirely accurate.

In political campaigns, research has consistently shown that campaign spending has a strong link to vote shares. It is undeniable that over the last decade the candidate who spends more money in an election is more likely to win, however the causality is not clear. Most political scientists would say that the candidate with more money usually wins because people donate to the candidate they think is going to win, rather than saying that the money, itself, caused a candidate to win. However, while causality is not clear, there is still an undeniable association between money and election victory.

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According to a separate school of thought, Grimes should certainly be concerned with the amount of money she is spending, because research has also shown that the amount of money spent by a challenger has a significantly greater impact than the amount of money spent by the incumbent in an election when determining vote shares. The theory goes that the more a challenger spends, the greater amount of the vote share he/she will receive; however, the more money an incumbent spends, the less amount of the vote share he/she will receive (talk to Eric Cantor…he can tell you all about that).

Thus, while it is a crowd pleaser to say that the campaign isn’t about money and more about the people, in reality, this may not be the case…it seems that the money plays a vital role in an election, and certainly in this election where the ability to fundraise is unquestionable to remain competitive.

 

Campaign Advice for Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes

[ Note: this essay is cross-posted on Huffington Post and Information Knoll ]

There’s no shortage of campaign strategy advice in this year’s Kentucky Senate race. In that spirit, I’ll add my own two cents.

If I were advising the McConnell campaign, I would say…

Don’t screw up.

You’re the incumbent and incumbents already enjoy somewhere between a 5%-10% advantage right off the bat, although this does tend to fade over time so it’s not going to be worth as much as it was in the past when you first ran for reelection. Also, the economic and political “fundamentals” are on your side, which is why all the numbers geeks are giving you anywhere between a 78% and 99%+ chance of winning (see here, here, and here). So basically, just make sure to keep up with the fundraising and campaigning, give your conservative Republican base a reason to turn out to vote for you by railing on Obama and by talking up the strong possibility of a GOP Senate takeover.

And don’t screw up.

If I were advising the Grimes campaign, I would say…

You and I both know that you have an uphill battle to fight. You’re a Democratic challenger in a red state where the sitting Democratic president is very unpopular. But then, your incumbent opponent is also very unpopular in your state, but that tends to matter less than the economic and political fundamentals which are currently giving you a 1-in-5 chance, at best. You’ll need a strong campaign combined with some luck to come out on top this year.

Right now it seems that one of your key strategies is trying to appeal to women, presumably in an attempt to entice Republican women over to your team (seehere, here, and here, e.g.). While it makes for a great media narrative and may possibly work, there are strong reasons to think that this may not be the most effective strategy. To put it bluntly, women simply don’t tend to be swing voters. Oodles of political science research has shown that, after controlling for partisanship, there’s not much of a difference between men and women in their voting patterns. In other words, women are just as reliably partisan as men. The fault lines of American politics do not tend to fall around gender, but rather partisanship and ideology. Thus, there are likely not very many Republican women who are going to “defect” in this high-profile partisan election.

So who are more likely targets where you could concentrate your efforts? I took the liberty of doing some number crunching on an exit poll of Kentucky voters from the 2008 Kentucky Senate election where McConnell narrowly beat Bruce Lunsford 53%-47%. In that election, only about 14% of Republicans voted for Lunsford, and they made up only 5% of all voters total. Further analysis shows that these Republican defectors tended to be a little younger than their loyal partisan counterparts (about 22% of Republican defectors were under age 30 compared to 15% of Republicans who stayed in the fold). They also tended to be poorer (46% of Republican defectors made less than $50K/year compared to 33% of loyal Republicans) and more ideologically moderate (56% of those Republican defectors identified as moderate and 34% as conservative, while those who stuck with McConnell were 37% moderate and 70% conservative).

Perhaps most importantly, there was ZERO difference when it came to gender. 50.7% of Republicans who voted for Lunsford were women compared to 50.4% who voted for McConnell – a statistically indistinguishable amount. This suggests that women are very likely not the persuadable demographic among Republican partisans. Instead, it seems to be younger, poorer, more moderate Republicans.

On the other hand, nearly a quarter of self-identified Democrats switched sides and voted for Mitch McConnell in 2008. They made up a full 11% of all voters in that election. What did these Democrats look like? They were more ideologically conservative (34% of Democratic McConnell voters said they were conservative compared to only 15% of Democratic Lunsford voters), more likely to be white (95% of Democratic defectors were white compared to 72% of loyal Democrats), and more likely to approve of George Bush (34% compared to 10%). They were also slightly more likely to be men, making up 48% of Democrats who voted for McConnell compared to 41% of Democrats who voted for Lunsford. There were also no differences when it came to age, education levels, income, or religiosity. This suggests that in 2008, Lunsford lost Democratic partisans who looked a lot like Republicans – conservative white men who were more approving of President Bush. This suggests that you might have success keeping your Democratic partisans “in the fold” by veering toward the middle and appealing to cultural conservatives in Kentucky as much as possible.

That presents a tough choice: appeal to younger, more moderate Republicans who might be persuaded to defect or appeal to conservative white Democrats who may be likely to switch sides. Given that there were more than twice as many voters in the latter category (11% of all voters) than the former (5% of all voters) in 2008, it stands to reason that veering toward the middle and trying to retain moderate Democratic partisans may be the option with the higher pay-off. That being said, you don’t want to veer too far toward the middle or you might risk alienating your loyal liberal base so much that they don’t care enough to turn out to vote on Election Day. Trying to balance that tightrope walk will be a delicate endeavor indeed.

One thing is for certain, at least: there is little evidence from the 2008 Kentucky Senate election that Republican women were a persuadable demographic in that campaign. It’s possible that the 2014 Senate campaign will be different, but given how consistent and predictable American voting patterns are, I wouldn’t bet on it. Perhaps consider altering the approach slightly. Forget about “peeling off” Republican women and instead focus on loyal Democratic women (to make sure they show up to vote on Election Day) and moderate or conservative-leaning Democratic women (to encourage them to stay in the fold).

Sam Youngman and the Kentucky Senate Race

This past week we interviewed Sam Youngman concerning the Kentucky Senate Race. Youngman is a national political writer, spending ten years in Washington, D.C. before moving back home to Kentucky and joining the Lexington Herald-Leader. In 2012 Youngman was a correspondent for Reuters where he was on the campaign trail with presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in addition to spending over three years as a White House correspondent for The Hill covering Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Youngman, too, has covered countless House and Senate races, and thus we wished to capture his views on the Kentucky Senate race.

Below, find a portion of our interview. While many of these topics have been discussed in previous blog posts, Youngman adds a journalistic perspective. 

1. From a journalistic standpoint, what is the least covered aspect of the Kentucky Senate Race as of now?

Honestly, I think it is education. This race has become dominated by coal and jobs. Both of those are important issues but they are not the only issues. Really what we are seeing here is a nakedly political race. Most times we claim to talk about the issues, but that’s not what we’re really doing here. What we are seeing is both sides using issues to frame the politics the way they want. For Senator McConnell, that means coal: using coal to tie Alison Lundergan Grimes to President Obama and to national Democrats like Senate Leader Harry Reid. For Alison Lundergan Grimes that means taking a comment that Senator McConnell says about jobs and trying to turn that into a comment on his thirty years in Washington and the current economic state of Kentucky. So you see we aren’t really talking about solutions on these issues, we are talking about who is worse on these issues.

2. You mentioned Senator McConnell trying to tie Secretary Grimes to Democratic leaders in Washington like President Obama and Harry Reid. While we have heard this several times, do you think that Grimes has been successful in her effort to distance herself from Obama and Reid?

I think from what we saw on the primary night the answer is ‘no’. But that is just for now, that is why we have campaigns so you can try and change these narratives. But what we saw primary night was that in coal-producing counties where voters had been inundated for months by advertising that made that effort to tie Grimes to Obama and Harry Reid and on primary night in a closed Democratic primary, Alison Lundergan Grimes really underperformed in a number of counties. In some places, close to 40% of the people voted for another Democrat even though none of the other Democrats put any money into the race. So I would say that early on the numbers would indicate McConnell has had some success with that strategy. What we have seen from Grimes since the primary, and really since she has gotten in the race, is a concerted effort portray herself as an independent voice. It is too early to tell if she is having any success in that push back. But, I think given the long period she was in the race without really introducing herself on a mass scale to voters, I think it is going to be an uphill battle for her to put daylight between her and the President.

3. One of our blog posts deals with when a candidate takes a position on an issue or not. So for McConnell, we wrote about how he was fervently against Obamacare, but then after the success of Kynect, was forced to rethink some of his statements. Recently you have written about Grimes not taking a clear stance on immigration funding…do you think that this is an issue which is salient enough in Kentucky to where she will be forced to take a stance?

Oh, I think so. It is a crisis that is getting national attention. Just this morning the McConnell campaign put out a release noting the different positions that Secretary Grimes has taken on the crisis since we started asking about it. I was really struck a couple weeks ago when we asked Secretary Grimes about the Presidential request for an emergency supplemental funding bill to address the crisis and she declined to take a position. But, it also seemed like she didn’t really know what we were asking. She kept referring to the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill. So I was really struck when she wasn’t more engaged on that issue, considering what big news it’s been. But I think immigration is going to continue to be one of the dominate, hot button issues in this country until there is a comprehensive reform passed, or until it is dealt with, it will continue to be this hot button issue…and I don’t know when that will be. Chuck Todd was here the other night and he said ‘look at the calendar, when do you see immigration getting done? This election year, the next election year, or in 2016 when everyone is running for President?’ So I think yes, it will be a big issue this year and a big issue going forward.

Do you think that voters are currently upset with Grimes for not taking a stance on immigration? Or are they even aware that she hasn’t?

You know, that is the big question: how much are people paying attention? My feeling has always been voters aren’t making up their mind during the spring/summer, but they are forming general impressions. If a general impression, especially for somebody young and their opponent is trying to push the idea that they don’t have the experience or the policy knowledge to do the job, and I feel that if the general impression confirms either of those things, then it becomes a problem. You know, polling conducted in the spring showed that as much as a third of voters didn’t know enough about Secretary Grimes to make an opinion. That is a danger zone for a candidate because that means not only have they not defined themselves with voters, but they have also given their opponent the opportunity to define them for them…and that is a real dangerous place to be. I do think that as we move into the fall campaign it will be on her to not only rebut those notions but really prove that she is capable of doing the job.

4. Do you think that Grimes, as a challenger, is different from McConnell’s previous challengers? Does she have an advantage of any sort over the failed challengers of the past?

I do. I think that when you are running against someone who has been in office for thirty years in a time when American distain for Washington and Washington institutions is an all-time high, being sort of a fresh face is an unmeasurable advantage. Really successful politicians, however, can turn an advantage into a weakness, and I think we’ll see Senator McConnell do that. One of his campaign lines is ‘my opponent will say she is a fresh face, but she is a fresh face for the status quo.’ I’m not sure how effective that will be, but I do think that is a bar any young candidate has to clear.

5. What is it then that is McConnell’s biggest advantage aside from incumbency?

His greatest advantage is that he lives for races like this. A close race, with his back against the wall, this is Mitch McConnell’s idea of Christmas. He is the guy that lives for the fight….and I think Alison Grimes is going to give him one.

So you’re saying that he does well under pressure?

I am. I mean if you look at his numbers throughout the course of his career, he has never really been what you would call ‘beloved’. He is a survivor. It is races that are in the margin of error are where he really excels. I think one of the reasons they are so confident right now is that if you look at the moderate district Senate races, Democrats don’t have a problem getting to where Alison Grimes is getting— mid-to-high 40s, no problem. It’s getting over that that is the problem, and I have to believe that right now with the way the electorate has been trending, the problems that national Democrats are having, especially beginning and ending at the White House, are creating an environment that is favorable to McConnell. But, I come back to that it is not just Obama that people are mad at in Washington, it is all of Washington, and that includes Senator McConnell.

6. Our last question is this: come November, will it be an issue that matters most to voters or will it be straight partisanship, like we touched on earlier?

There is what is known as an ‘October-Surprise’ in just about every election. I always about this point in a race I laugh myself thinking I’ve got such a good handle on the race, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that there is a good chance something will happen that none of us see coming that could dramatically alter the contours of the race. But if the current trend lines hold, I think what the race is about will tell you who won. If it is a referendum on Barack Obama, then Mitch McConnell wins a sixth term. If it is a referendum on Mitch McConnell, I won’t say that Alison Lundergan Grimes definitely wins, but I would say that favors her. Like I said, this is a nakedly political race—whoever is better at framing the debate will win this race.

An Interview with Dr. Rohr on the Role of Gender in Politics

The following is an interview with Dr. Lia Rohr who came to Centre College in 2013 as a Visiting Professor of Politics. She received a B.A. in history from the University of Arizona and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Southern Illinois University. She studies the intersection of gender, the media, and American politics.

Alison Grimes has been placing a lot of emphasis on her gender, presumably in hopes that Kentucky women, who make up 53% of the electorate, will be more likely to vote in her favor come November 4th. Do you think this strategy will be successful?

While “playing to gender” has proven to be a successful  strategy in some contexts and with some voters,  I think it would be a mistake for Grimes to continue this pronounced gender-based strategy, as it has the potential to turn off as many voters as it might attract to her camp. We have to keep in mind that parts of Kentucky are pretty conservative, and a gender-based focus might not be the most effective strategy in some areas.  If she wishes to defeat McConnell, she might want to shift some of the attention away from her gender and toward a focus on her qualifications.

How do you think that Mitch McConnell or the national Republican Party will deal with the role of gender in the campaign? What effect might that have on voters?

McConnell will likely tread very lightly on gender in order to avoid making any ill-timed gaffes, such as the one’s that plagued male candidates of his party in 2012.  McConnell’s team might attempt to mitigate the focus on gender altogether or, conversely, focus on gender from either a family-values or economic independence perspective. He will also need to be careful not to appear as though he is attacking Grimes too overtly, as that might turn a number of voters off.

In my last post, I discussed Alice Eagly’s argument that a female’s disadvantage in politics stems from a necessity to assume both the female gender role but also the stereotypically “male” leadership role characteristics. Do you find validity to that argument? What other arguments do you find particularly convincing in explaining this disadvantage?  

It is true that women candidates are often plagued by a “double bind,” in which they must walk a metaphorical tight rope between feminity and competency, but I do believe that more voters have become aware of this and less likely to punish women who don’t fit the ideal image of female candidate who effectively balances the two sides of the bind.  Unfortunately, this is still a reality and one that is often perpetuated by the media.  However, I think as we see more in politics, the need to appeal to the double bind will diminish.

On the most basic level, do you consider it an advantage or a disadvantage to be a woman in American politics? 

While in some contexts and in some districts, being a woman might actually be advantageous, I think that overall women still face an uphill battle.  While women are just as successful as their male counterparts when they do run, a lot of women, even highly qualified women, are reluctant to run.  Unfortunately, many women do not feel they are qualified to run (even when they are) or are turned off by what they perceive as the hostile nature of electoral politics.  Also, women are less likely to be encouraged to run, though this is changing.  And while some voters are still biased against women candidates, others are not.  The key is to get more women to run.

What was your Ph.D. dissertation about? Does it relate to the Kentucky Senate race? If so, how?

In my dissertation, I looked at how U.S. House candidates in a variety of electoral contexts negotiate gender role expectations in their campaign communications through the performance of gender-based archetypes.  These archetypes range from the overtly feminine/masculine “mother” or “alpha male” characterizations to the more modern and less overtly gendered professional or modern man/women role.  This definitely relates to the Kentucky Senate race.  In my study I found that while many women challengers running against male incumbents pursued an overtly feminine gender-based strategy, none of them were successful in defeating the male incumbent.  This implies that “playing to gender” might not be the best strategy for a woman candidate.  If anything, Grimes needs to prove to the public that she is just as competent and qualified as McConnell.  Emphasizing her gender, to a certain, extent, is necessary, but to win in such a high profile race, she will need to prove to the voters that she is more than her gender.  Whatever the outcome, it will be an exciting race to watch from both a political and gender-based perspective.