T.J.: We’ve all grown accustomed to local elections being decided by a handful of voters. The turnout is usually precipitously lower in an odd-numbered year. What’s different about this year is you’re going to see greater turnout in local elections based upon all that’s going on around us, especially in Washington, D.C. But I don’t believe those voters are going to break down strictly along partisan lines. Partisanship is likely to be offset by exclusively local issues, be they open space, pipelines, opioids or whatever affects the locale.
Alan: That is exactly what’s happening in the southeastern county local elections. I think the national issues may make folks turn out, but in local races people are identifying with issues personally, as it relates to where they live.
T.J.: Right, so while we have dynamics that might suggest Democrats will do exceedingly well, based upon last year and based upon what’s going on nationally, at the end of the day local voters care about local issues. What’s happening in Washington may get them out the door, but decisions in the voting booth will be based upon what’s in their best interests from a purely local perspective.
Alan: Opioids are a very personal issue. If people in office have done a good job with the opioid epidemic and that voter recognizes it, or that voter lives in a community where open space is wildly popular, and that is attributed to the incumbent office holder; they’re going to get that person’s vote. I know staunch Democrats in Chester County that would vote for Republican Ryan Costello when he was running for office, whether he was running for county commissioner or Congress, because he was so strong on open space.
The other thing I see is that these are the most competitive county elections in what have otherwise been historically Republican counties, like Chester and Delaware. I think that competitiveness is going to drive some of the turnout. The Democrats sense they could win this and that’s going to motivate them.
T.J.: Right now, impeachment is a great motivator to get to the Democratic base. But once they get to the polls, the outcome is up for grabs. As much as Donald Trump is on the ballot, he’s not actually on the ballot. Local men and women seeking local office are, and voters typically know those men and women better than our national or even congressional candidates. They know Joe and Jean from church or the grocery store or nursery school, and that’s what makes these elections different.
In Southeastern Pennsylvania, you can’t have a conversation about local elections without having a conversation about pipelines. We’re likely to see more folks than normal at the polls, but using pipelines as an example, that’s where the partisan nature of these elections goes to die.
Alan: These are the elections where people tend to split their ticket more than any other election. I’m aware of a couple of pockets in my home county where Republicans are not happy with the current Republican office holders on an issue that has to do with county government. I’m hearing there are going to be defections. Local issues may decide the race, but so will the party that holds on to its base with straight-ticket voting. The party that keeps their voters is the party that will end up winning the county election.
T.J.: The base is hugely important in every election, but particularly in off-year elections. I’m interested in seeing if people beyond the base show up to vote. What they do once they get in the voting booth is the reason that the candidates are out campaigning so hard. In local elections, voters who are driven to the polls for one reason get there and realize their choice is between two friends or two neighbors, and one happens to have a D or R next to their name. These are hyper-localized, hyper-personalized choices that will lead to closer elections than we’ve seen in a very, very long time.
Alan: I wonder if we will see an increase in independent voting in this election. We certainly have seen an increase in independent registrations. We used to call these odd-year elections committeemen and committeewomen races. The committee person would be standing at the poll saying, “Here’s the ticket,” and they would get a straight-party ballot. Years ago, Republicans always won these races in the southeast because they got more straight-party votes than Democrats did. Well, where we are today the party structure and the committee structure is not as strong. People are not coming to the poll to take somebody’s word on who to vote for; they’re coming to the polls to vote on an issue or to vote for somebody they know. This is why the candidates are attending everything: not-for-profit events; community picnics; business events; you name it. If 10 people are gathered, somebody on this ballot is at that event, because the margin of victory is going to be that close.
T.J.: Which is why in this election partisan registration might not be as impactful as the local issue. In the southeast, I draw a straight line to pipelines. Pipelines have garnered tremendous attention and are full of emotion on both sides of the issue. In Southeastern Pennsylvania, you can’t have a conversation about local elections without having a conversation about pipelines. We’re likely to see more folks than normal at the polls, but using pipelines as an example, that’s where the partisan nature of these elections goes to die.
Alan: In Chester and Delaware County pipelines remain probably the most emotional, most galvanizing or most polarizing issue. We saw the result of that a year ago in the legislative races. I can see the fervor is still there. The social network that’s organized around them is still very active, and I think the pipeline issues in those towns and boroughs where pipelines were major drivers in the election results a year ago are going to impact local races this time around.
T.J.: You can very, very, very easily be a strong and partisan Democrat and might very well think that we need these pipelines in order to best utilize the natural resource that Pennsylvania is home to. Conversely, if you’re a Republican, you may feel strongly that we should have a ban on fracking in Pennsylvania. The partisan pitch is to blindly draw voters out and hope that the law of large numbers prevails. But in these elections, you could be a partisan Republican and have at your core what is otherwise a rather left of center, Democrat position. And conversely, as a Democrat you might think that, “Hey, we need these jobs.” So pipelines are a hyper-local issue and will be more of an impactful decider on how people vote than simple partisan registration.
Alan: Party is irrelevant when it comes to an issue like pipelines. You’re either for it or against it. The same can be said for open space and opioids. These issues are going to filter through the local nature of these elections. People are coming out to vote, but they will base the vote on somebody they either like or know, or an issue that matters to them, whether it’s personal or whether it’s within the community where they live. In a close race, the local issues will decide it.
Alan Novak (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and T.J. Rooney (email@example.com) is a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. They are principals of Rooney Novak Isenhour Group and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and policy debates.