The new nor­mal in pol­i­tics

The Review - - OPINION - By G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young G. Terry Madonna is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic af­fairs at Franklin & Mar­shall Col­lege, and Michael Young is a for­mer pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics and pub­lic af­fairs at Penn State Univer­sity and manag­ing part­ner of Michael Young St

On election night an­a­lysts try to make sense of the results, put them in some sort of con­text, and de­scribe what­ever pat­terns and forces have pro­duced elec­toral out­comes.

Good luck fol­low­ing that script in 2018.

In­deed, the 2018 election is not fol­low­ing any nor­mal midterm script.

Turnout ex­pec­ta­tions il­lus­trate the non-nor­mal char­ac­ter of this year’s election. By con­sen­sus, the turnout of Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers Nov. 6 will be close to or set a new midterm record.

But that record turnout won’t be driven as might be ex­pected by hotly con­tested top of the ticket statewide races — or even the usual hot but­ton is­sues in­fus­ing na­tional pol­i­tics.

That’s be­cause there are none. In the gover­nor’s and se­nate race, the only two statewide con­tests, the Democrats have com­mand­ing leads in races widely panned as among the most bor­ing in state his­tory. Nor­mally the gover­nor’s race dom­i­nates midterm elec­tions in the state, reap­ing the lion’s share of me­dia cov­er­age as well as fundrais­ing and spend­ing. Not this year. Not even close. The U.S. Se­nate race has been equally so­porific as well as equally un­der­whelm­ing.

Then there is the state leg­is­la­ture where all house seats and one half of se­nate seats are up for election. De­spite pre­dic­tions of record turnout, not one in­de­pen­dent an­a­lyst be­lieves the state leg­is­la­ture will un­dergo any party change. At the end of the day, Repub­li­cans will re­main firmly in con­trol of the state leg­is­la­ture, with the only ques­tion be­ing how firm that con­trol will be.

So, the two statewide races are so list­less that many vot­ers are only dimly aware of them, and state leg­isla­tive elec­tions are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed to con­tinue the status quo.

Still, the turnout is ex­pected to be enor­mous. Why?

Two com­pelling rea­sons: com­pet­i­tive elec­tions and a com­bat­ive Trump.

As many as nine com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sional races across the state will help drive turnout as Penn­syl­va­nia vot­ers play out the dra­matic role as­signed to them at the epi­cen­ter of the bat­tle for con­trol of the U.S. House.

His­tor­i­cally, com­pet­i­tive house races in Penn­syl­va­nia are an ano­maly. Even more un­usual is Penn­syl­va­nia’s key role in the na­tional results. More typ­i­cally in­cum­bents breeze through their re-elec­tions, elic­it­ing lit­tle voter in­ter­est — ex­cept­ing, per­haps, in an open seat or two. In 2012, for ex­am­ple, Repub­li­cans cap­tured 13 of Penn­syl­va­nia’s 18 con­gres­sional seats. The Repub­li­cans held this same 13 to 5 edge after the 2106 election as well..

The 2018 drama, how­ever, is be­ing cre­ated by a new con­gres­sional map, is­sued by the state Supreme Court ear­lier in the year. That cor­rected a grotesquely ger­ry­man­dered older map. The new map has thrust the cam­paigns over the state’s 18 seats into the na­tional spot­light, gen­er­at­ing more na­tional cov­er­age than any time in modern his­tory — per­haps any time in state his­tory. Con­se­quently, Penn­syl­va­nia will be among a hand­ful of states likely to de­ter­mine con­trol of the U.S. House, dra­mat­i­cally al­ter­ing the arc of the na­tional government.

Aid­ing and abet­ting is the pres­i­dent, one Don­ald J. Trump, not on the bal­lot, but very much on the mind of many vot­ers.

Nor­mally midterm elec­tions are al­most al­ways a ref­er­en­dum on the in­cum­bent pres­i­dent, even in­cum­bents that try to stay out of them. But few if any midterms have gen­er­ated more voter in­ter­est, nor po­lar­ized more vot­ers than the cur­rent one. Trump has jumped in with both feet, hold­ing dozens of rau­cous ral­lies across the coun­try, while seek­ing to oblit­er­ate the mid­dle ground many vot­ers nor­mally find in a mid-term. He has made a de­facto ref­er­en­dum on the pres­i­dent into a vir­tual one, pos­si­bly pro­duc­ing more straight party vot­ing among both par­ties than seen in many decades, while driv­ing turnout to record heights.

If ev­ery election is a ref­er­en­dum on the last election, this one is also go­ing to tell us a lot about the next one. What it tells us now is that 2020 is go­ing to be one of the most tu­mul­tuous, hard fought and po­lar­iz­ing in po­lit­i­cal his­tory.

It’s also be­com­ing the new nor­mal in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

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