Q&A with Medill's Larry Stuelpnagel on midterm elections

    Professor Larry Stuelpnagel covered both local and national elections for 14 years as a political reporter in New Jersey. Now, as a professor in the political science department as well as in Medill, he studies the impact of the press on the political process. NBN sat down with Stuelpnagel to discuss the upcoming midterm elections, including Obama’s impact on close contests, specific races to watch, and trends to look out for nationwide as the election approaches next week.

    NBN: What is different about this mid-term election compared to previous ones?

    Professor Larry Stuelpnagel: In this particular case, the president is very unpopular across the country. So that has a lot of Democrats running scared. His popularity rating right now is in same ballpark of [former President George W.] Bush’s in the second half of his second term. For Democrats, that’s a bad sign, but it’s not unusual for a president in the last half of his last term. Sitting presidents typically lose seats during midterms elections, period. This time, with the president’s low popularity, the Democrats have good reason to be concerned.

    NBN: How has the media impacted the topics covered in elections across the country?

    Stuelpnagel: Based on what I’ve seen on the various cable talk shows, and even the Sunday morning shows, they’ve turned it into more of a referendum on Obama. That is why the president, including coming to Northwestern, has been coming around and saying, ‘Hey, if you do a direct comparison of what the country was like when I took office, and what its like now, there’s a lot of stuff to be proud of.’ But that’s not a narrative that’s [being emphasized.] Unemployment is down, the economy is doing better, there’s an Affordable Health Care Act out there that is signing people up, the president is saying there’s a lot of accomplishments there. And he does have a lot of accomplishments, objectively speaking. There are a lot of things for him and other Democrats to brag about. But a lot of congressional candidates are running away from the guy because they see his general popularity polls.

    NBN: What are the keys to victory in Illinois’ gubernatorial election?

    Stuelpnagel: I think [Gov. Pat] Quinn is vulnerable, because I’m not convinced he’s done enough to bring out the African-American or Latino vote. He needs a really good turnout here in Chicago, and with young people too, to pull it off. I think he’s very vulnerable and it’s very tight, and without a strong get-out-the-vote effort, I think he could lose.

    NBN: What are the general trends in elections nationwide you’re looking out for?

    Stuelpnagel: The whole battle for the Senate is tight and Wisconsin’s election for governor has been fun to watch. I think the thing in general to look out for in this election is what is going on under the radar screen. Democrats may be able to use that, which has turned into their advantage in the last two presidential elections. What are they doing to get out a targeted vote, like finding the voters that put Obama over the top? Everyone was predicting a fairly close race [in the last presidential election], and then Romney ended up getting buried fairly well. Why? Because there’s a lot going on that we don’t know about in terms of targeted voting. I think that’s the key in a lot of these races. North Carolina and Georgia, who would’ve thought that would be a likely place for Democrats to pick up votes? In Colorado, the surface polls show the Republican has a good chance of winning, but in the last couple elections, under the radar screen, the Democrat has pulled ahead with get-out-the-vote efforts. That’s the unknown in this election.

    NBN: How could the result of these elections affect the 2016 elections?

    Stuelpnagel: If the Republicans take over the Senate, it would depend on what they do. If it continues to be the party of ‘No,’ [that could hurt their cause]. But it could go either way. You have to remember that you have a president that when he wants to be can be a very effective communicator. So if he is facing Republican majorities in both houses, then he might pick up his game a little bit in terms of rhetorical defenses. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are disappointed in the lack of fire in his belly that he’s put into defending his own record. If you don’t have a strong leader out there defending himself, then it’s hard for the troops down on the ticket, the senators and congressmen, to pick up the fight.


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