Rus­sia med­dling story not stick­ing in swing states

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAN BOYLAN

With new rev­e­la­tions ev­ery week, the Rus­sian elec­tion med­dling story has made Wash­ing­ton dizzy for months, but poll­sters in swing states are hav­ing a hard time see­ing its im­pact be­yond the Belt­way — leav­ing fore­cast­ers of the midterm elec­tions torn over the story’s po­ten­tial im­pact.

“There is some bub­ble syn­drome,” poll­ster Brad Coker of Ma­son-Dixon Polling and Re­search told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Mr. Coker’s firm con­ducted sig­nif­i­cant polling in swing states dur­ing elec­tion sea­son last year. Like other lead­ing pub­lic opin­ion pro­fes­sion­als, he ar­gues that the murk­i­ness of Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity and the lack of a clear “smok­ing gun” have not con­vinced vot­ers far from the na­tion’s cap­i­tal — es­pe­cially the un­af­fil­i­ated.

But poll­sters also note that his­tory fa­vors Democrats — at least in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Larry J. Sa­bato’s Crys­tal Ball, run by the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia’s Cen­ter for Politics, notes that since the Civil War the party con­trolled by the White House has lost seats in 36 of the 39 midterm elec­tions.

Un­af­fil­i­ated vot­ers could make next year even more un­pre­dictable. Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­dency partly by lever­ag­ing their anger against the sta­tus quo in Wash­ing­ton.

But the Rus­sia story has bogged down the White House, and the per­cep­tion is grow­ing that Wash­ing­ton is even more par­a­lyzed than be­fore his vic­tory, poll­sters say.

Na­tion­ally, re­ports about Rus­sia as a na­tional threat lag be­hind the drama that grips Wash­ing­ton. The Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s lat­est sur­vey on the sub­ject was in Jan­uary just be­fore Mr. Trump moved into the White House. It found 79 per­cent of Amer­i­cans felt that the Is­lamic State group posed a ma­jor threat while 54 per­cent said the same about “the power and in­flu­ence of Rus­sia.”

Poll­sters note that the sur­vey data bear a strik­ing dif­fer­ence from April 2016, when 42 per­cent viewed “ten­sions with Rus­sia” as a ma­jor threat. That sur­vey had 37 per­cent of Democrats and 46 per­cent of Repub­li­cans view­ing Rus­sia neg­a­tively.

Af­ter ac­cu­sa­tions that Rus­sian hack­ers at­tacked the cam­paign of Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton, Pew found that 67 per­cent of Democrats and 41 per­cent of Repub­li­cans viewed Rus­sia neg­a­tively.

Won­der­ing how this af­fects swing vot­ers, poll­sters agree that Mr. Trump’s low ap­proval rat­ings could have a ma­jor ef­fect on un­af­fil­i­ated vot­ers. Fifty per­cent of vot­ers in coun­ties that helped him win in Novem­ber ap­prove of his per­for­mance, ac­cord­ing to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll re­leased this week. But Gallup pegs his lat­est ap­proval rat­ing at 38 per­cent over­all.

Mr. Trump dom­i­nated swing states with his un­ortho­dox cam­paign that flum­moxed pun­dits and the wider Wash­ing­ton es­tab­lish­ment. Whether the Rus­sia scan­dal pushes swing state sup­port­ers away from Repub­li­cans de­pends on how the story de­vel­ops, poll­sters say.

Democrats would have to pick up 24 House seats the to win back the ma­jor­ity af­ter eight years in the mi­nor­ity. The av­er­age loss by the ma­jor­ity party dur­ing midterms is 33 seats, Mr. Sa­bato said. Thus far, Repub­li­cans have won four spe­cial House elec­tions that were seen as ref­er­en­dums on Mr. Trump.

The Se­nate cur­rently num­bers 52 Repub­li­cans, 46 Democrats and two in­de­pen­dents who cau­cus with the Democrats.

Florida

Mr. Trump nar­rowly won the Sun­shine State, best­ing Mrs. Clin­ton 48.6 per­cent to 47.4 per­cent.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts called his suc­cess there “a mi­cro­cosm of what un­folded na­tion­wide.” While Mrs. Clin­ton won di­verse ur­ban ar­eas of South Florida such as Mi­ami-Dade and Broward coun­ties, the pop­ulist Mr. Trump at­tracted older, white and blue-col­lar vot­ers from the Pan­han­dle to Cen­tral Florida.

Un­af­fil­i­ated vot­ers were key. Roughly 27 per­cent of Florida vot­ers iden­ti­fied as in­de­pen­dent, and pun­dits noted their crit­i­cal role in Mr. Trump’s vic­tory.

“But swing vot­ers prob­a­bly have not even di­gested [the Rus­sia con­tro­versy] yet,” said Mr. Coker, call­ing it a “Wash­ing­ton story.”

“At some point, there must be some­thing con­crete about Rus­sia — some­body get­ting caught break­ing an ac­tual law and not just step­ping over a line,” he said.

Mr. Coker said the midterms could pose a chal­lenge to a few border­line Repub­li­cans from Florida’s 27-mem­ber House del­e­ga­tion but not enough to sway the bal­ance much. Florida cur­rently sends 16 Repub­li­cans and 11 Democrats to Capi­tol Hill.

Still, the Rus­sia story could help Demo­cratic Sen. Bill Nel­son in his re-elec­tion bid next year, most likely against re­tir­ing twoterm Repub­li­can Gov. Rick Scott.

“I could see Nel­son ben­e­fit­ing — es­pe­cially if Trump can­not ex­pand the base,” Mr. Coker said.

North Carolina

Con­sid­ered by po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als to be “one of Amer­ica’s swingi­est swing states,” North Carolina went for Mr. Trump 49.8 per­cent to 46.2 per­cent.

Repub­li­cans dom­i­nated among older, white, ru­ral vot­ers from the Smok­ies to the Outer Banks while Mrs. Clin­ton took the state’s rapidly ex­pand­ing ur­ban cen­ters of Char­lotte, Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Un­af­fil­i­ated vot­ers also fac­tored heav­ily, with 29 per­cent of the state’s vot­ers reg­is­tered as in­de­pen­dents.

“The politi­cians are all wor­ried about [the Rus­sia story], the po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tants are all wor­ried about it,” said Carter Wrenn, a long­time state Repub­li­can con­sul­tant. “But the av­er­age guy or swing voter has a lot more sense than most politi­cians or po­lit­i­cal con­sulates.”

Af­ter a chuckle, Mr. Wrenn, who once cam­paigned for Sen. Jesse Helms, agreed that un­til there is enough ev­i­dence that some­thing crim­i­nal hap­pened, Rus­sia is sim­ply not on most swing vot­ers’ radar. As such, North Carolina’s 13-mem­ber House del­e­ga­tion will prob­a­bly re­main at 10 Repub­li­cans and three Democrats.

Mr. Wrenn does la­ment the cur­rent me­dia en­vi­ron­ment.

“CNN and The New York Times are try­ing to con­vict [Mr. Trump],” he said. “Fox is try­ing to deny he did any­thing wrong. It is not their job to con­vict or ab­solve — just re­port the facts.”

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