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Election Analysis

Bill and four political science professors discuss the 2015 and 2016 elections. Guests: John Heyrman from Berea College; Michael Hail from Morehead State University; Anne Cizmar from Eastern Kentucky University; and Bruce Hicks from the University of the Cumberlands.
Season 23 Episode 2 Length 56:33 Premiere: 11/09/15

Elections: What Happened and What’s Ahead?

All the polling in the Kentucky governor’s race showed Democrat Jack Conway even with or ahead of Republican Matt Bevin. Conway outraised and outspent Bevin on political commercials. And historic trends in the commonwealth give Democrats an enormous advantage in gubernatorial contests.

So how did Bevin end up winning last week’s election by nearly 85,000 votes?

A panel of political science and government professors dissected the voting results on KET’s Kentucky Tonight to find several key factors in Bevin’s victory.

Tea Party Grows Stronger
The professors concur that the Tea Party wing of the GOP deserves significant credit for Bevin’s victory last Tuesday. Although the movement is relatively young, they say it has rapidly become a potent force in state politics.

“One thing we know for sure about the Tea Party is that they’re well organized and that they vote,” says John Heyrman of Berea College. “They come out in these off-year elections when the Democrats are doing a poor job of getting their voters out.”

Despite a generally older base among Tea Party voters, Heyrman says their organization spans a range of generations. He says Sen. Rand Paul’s popularity among college students has helped bring younger voters into the Tea Party fold.

But even though the movement helped elect Bevin, Heyrman is uncertain whether the Republican will tow the Tea Party line as governor. He says a good deal of Bevin’s popularity going forward will hinge on the policy decisions he makes.

Bruce Hicks of the University of the Cumberlands says Bevin will also have to navigate the schism between the Tea Partiers and the traditional Republicans he may have alienated during the campaign. And he needs to mend fences with the media he battled so they can help him make his policy cases to voters.

A Brand New Brand
As the Bluegrass State continues to get redder, the professors say Democratic candidates will face stiffer political challenges. President Barack Obama and his policies, especially those around coal, have hurt Democrats in Kentucky, and voters here generally tend to be more conservative on social issues.

“The elephant in the room for the Democrats is how are they going to develop a distinct brand for Kentucky Democrats that’s more conservative than the brand for the national Democratic Party,” says Morehead State University’s Michael Hail. “If they can’t do that… it’s going to continue to be a tough electoral climate for them.”

Hail says Democrats will also need to perform better with urban voters, many of whom tend to be more moderate, to counterbalance turnout among conservative voters in rural areas. And he says Democrats must find stronger positions on economic, environmental, and social issues that will compete better with the Republican policy playbook.

Same-sex marriage provides a good example of one social issue conundrum facing Democrats, according to Anne Cizmar of Eastern Kentucky University. She says Conway’s decision not to challenge a federal judge’s ruling that overturned Kentucky’s constitutional ban on gay marriage further divided his base.

“A lot of Democrats applauded that decision,” Cizmar says. “However I think for a lot of swing voters or undecided voters in Kentucky, along with conservative voters, [that decision] did not help him at all.”

The Polls Got It Wrong
Polling conducted during the campaign by Survey USA, Mason Dixon Research, and Western Kentucky University all showed Conway maintaining a slight lead over Bevin. Even an internal Republican poll released days before the election had Conway and Bevin tied. Yet the final outcome gave Bevin a 9-point victory. The polling also gave sizable leads to several down-ballot Democrats for races they ultimately either lost or narrowly won.

The professors point to several problems with current polling methods. Berea College’s John Heyrman says fewer people are responding to polling calls, so pollsters are struggling to get a representative sample of likely voters. Morehead State’s Michael Hail says the sample base is further skewed by the fact that rural and more conservative voters tend to not to answer polls as frequently and they tend to be under-sampled in general by polling organizations.

As more polls showed an advantage for Conway, the University of the Cumberland’s Bruce Hicks says media coverage reflected those results rather than how actual voters were trending.

“This narrative developed that [read] ‘Why isn’t Mr. Bevin doing better, why isn’t he campaigning harder, why isn’t he spending more money… why can’t he bring the Republican Party together?’” Hicks says. “That became the narrative, and I think that was driven by the polls.”

Voter Turnout and Apathy
Only about 31 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls last week. The turnout ranged from a low of 18 percent in Todd and Christian Counties to a high of 48 percent in Franklin County.

A range of ideas have been floated to boost turnout, from moving state elections to even-numbered years to coincide with federal elections, to allowing early voting and extending the voter registration period.

“There have been mixed results nationwide in terms of whether Election Day registration actually helps to spur turnout,” says EKU’s Cizmar. “But if people can get excited about the campaign and then show up on Election Day and not have to register well in advance, then that may help to spur turnout.”

But big changes to balloting process aren’t likely, says Berea College’s Heyrman. He says both parties would have to approve the changes, and the party in power at that time won’t want to rock the electoral boat.

Michael Hail of Morehead State says people still don’t participate despite many efforts over the years to make voting easier. He argues that there’s a different cause for low turnout.

“People need to care more and take more seriously their role in the political process, and care about the issues the candidates are talking about,” Hail says. “That’s where all the energy and focus needs to go.”

Heyrman disagrees with that point, saying that Americans vote less because of our balloting rules, not because the electorate is more apathetic. And Bruce Hicks from the University of the Cumberlands summarizes the apathy discussion by arguing that it’s a cop-out for people to say they don’t vote because they don’t care about a particular election or they don’t like any of the candidates.

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Season 23 Episodes

U.S. Senate Candidates

S23 E43 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/31/16

6th U.S. Congressional District Candidates

S23 E42 Length 56:53 Premiere Date 10/24/16

Countdown to the Election

S23 E41 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/17/16

Setting Education Policy

S23 E40 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/10/16

Jobs and Wages: Latest Trends

S23 E39 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 10/02/16

The Race for President

S23 E38 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/25/16

Forecasting the U.S. Economy

S23 E37 Length 56:34 Premiere Date 09/19/16

Changes to Kentucky's Medicaid

S23 E36 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 09/12/16

U.S. Foreign Policy Issues

S23 E35 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/29/16

Impact of Campaign Finance Laws

S23 E34 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/22/16

The Electoral College and Politics

S23 E33 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/15/16

The Future of Medicaid in Kentucky

S23 E32 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 08/01/16

Previewing the 2016 Election

S23 E31 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 07/10/16

Gun Control vs. 2nd Amendment

S23 E30 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/27/16

Debating Immigration Policy

S23 E29 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/20/16

Debate Over Jobs and Wages

S23 E27 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 06/06/16

Decoding Kentucky's Primary

S23 E25 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/23/16

2016 Primary Election Preview

S23 E24 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/16/16

Democratic U.S. Senate Primary

S23 E23 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 05/09/16

Republican U.S. Senate Primary Candidate

S23 E22 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 05/02/16

Republican 1st District Congressional Candidates

S23 E21 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 04/25/16

Democratic 1st District Congressional Candidate

S23 E20 Length 26:31 Premiere Date 04/18/16

Democratic 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E19 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 04/11/16

Republican 6th District Congressional Candidates

S23 E17 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/28/16

Republican 3rd Congressional District Candidates

S23 E16 Length 28:01 Premiere Date 03/21/16

2016 General Assembly at Midpoint

S23 E15 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/29/16

Negotiations on State Budget

S23 E14 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/22/16

Crafting New Education Policy

S23 E13 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/15/16

Debating the Minimum Wage

S23 E12 Length 56:31 Premiere Date 02/08/16

Assessing the Governor's Budget

S23 E11 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 02/01/16

Felony Records Expungement

S23 E10 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/25/16

Right to Work and Prevailing Wage

S23 E9 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/18/16

Charter Schools in Kentucky

S23 E8 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/11/16

Major Issues Await Legislature

S23 E7 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 01/04/16

Solving the State Pension Crisis

S23 E6 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 12/14/15

Preparing for the 2016 General Assembly

S23 E4 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/23/15

Priorities for the State Budget

S23 E3 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/16/15

Election Analysis

S23 E2 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/09/15

What's at Stake in the 2015 Election?

S23 E1 Length 56:33 Premiere Date 11/02/15

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Kentucky Tonight, hosted by Renee Shaw, is a public affairs discussion program broadcasted live on Monday nights at 8/7c on KET and KET.org/live.

Viewers with questions and comments may send e-mail to kytonight@ket.org or use the message form on this page. All messages should include first and last name and town or county. The phone number for viewer calls during the program is 1-800-494-7605.

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Kentucky Tonightwas awarded a 1997 regional Emmy by the Ohio Valley Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The series was also honored with a 1995 regional Emmy nomination.

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