Recent polls showing the divergence of “likely” and “registered” Arkansas voters clarifies that the outcome of the major 2014 races on the Arkansas ballot will be determined by turnout. If turnout veers in an exceptionally high direction for a non-presidential year, Democrats have a fair shot at winning the races at the top of the Arkansas ballot and in retaking control of the state House of Representatives. If turnout is more typical for a midterm election, Republicans will likely win these hard-fought contests with votes to spare.
This is the reason Democrats are investing such energy and dollars in creating a field campaign in key areas of the state that, for Arkansas, is unprecedented. These include segments of Northwest Arkansas where Democrats have high hopes of finding Democratic needles in the big Republican haystacks of Benton County and, along the way, picking off one or two state House seats.
The voter ID law passed by the legislature in 2013 will truncate the electorate — and do so in a manner that disproportionately affects voters that skew Democratic (such as low-income voters and persons of color). The outcome of the Arkansas Supreme Court’s review of Circuit Judge Tim Fox’s rejection of the law on state constitutional grounds has significant implications, therefore, in what may well be an incredibly close set of elections. (In other states, attempts to take away the vote of historically disenfranchised minorities can serve as a great motivator for increasing turnout to historically high rates; this motivation has not yet been the focus of Arkansas Democrats, and it may be a missed opportunity.)
Much discussed as a propellant for turnout, of course, has been the minimum wage initiative that qualified for the ballot last week. That announcement by the Secretary of State’s office led to a flurry of Republican candidates altering their position on the ballot measure (often with the most artful of language). The contrast between the Democratic and Republican candidates on the ballot measure was beneficial for Democrats, but the minimum wage measure’s appearance on the ballot was always as much about turnout among the Democratic base than a campaign issue. The key question now is whether money is put into the minimum wage campaign to actually pull voters to the polls — voters that will disproportionately pull the levers for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket.
Missed in the focus on field operations, voter ID rulings and the politics of the minimum wage has been the other petition-driven ballot measure: the effort to remove the crazy quilt of alcohol laws in Arkansas (literally precinct-by-precinct) and to create statewide legalization of alcohol sales. The limited polling on the alcohol amendment suggests, much like the minimum wage vote, that it has a power to drive turnout among voters that tends to drop off during midterm elections — and, as it happens, voters that skew in a decidedly Democratic direction.
In early August, Public Policy Polling released the only expansive public polling on the issue, and its results reinforced private polling on the issue. It found that the measure on statewide alcohol legalization was favored by a slight majority of Arkansans, but that traditionally low-turnout groups were most supportive of the measure. Specifically, young voters, African-American voters and Democratic identifiers were most supportive of the measure. Tellingly, nearly seven in 10 Arkansans approving of President Obama’s job performance (admittedly a small percentage of the overall electorate) supported the measure. Those are exactly the groups of voter that must show up if Democrats are to win in 2014.
Several questions remain: How much are supporters of the measure for statewide alcohol sales, including Walmart, willing to invest in the campaign for the measure to actually spur voters to the polls? Will concerns about statewide alcohol sales produce an opposition campaign among religious conservative voters that counters any turnout advantage for Democrats? Finally, just as the state Supreme Court will play a determinative role on the voter ID law, will the Court allow the measure to stay on the ballot by rejecting a lawsuit challenging the date on which the alcohol measure petitions were delivered to the Secretary of State?
As I’ve argued before, a departure from Arkansas’s archaic alcohol laws makes good policy sense. It also shows all signs of making good politics for Arkansas’s Democrats — a party that needs every break it can get in 2014.