October 22, 2016
As voting habits grow increasingly partisan, it is fair to wonder how much people actually matter in the political process. Does the campaign or the name on the ballot matter, or does it all boil down to fundamentals and the letter by the name? With Hillary Clinton looking to be on the way to a comfortable victory over Donald Trump in an election that the fundamentals say should be close (especially if you, like I do, attribute much of the improvement in the President’s approval rating to be a result of the unpopularity of the candidates rather than an increase in support for his policies), it appears that candidate strength does count for something. But must a candidate be as flawed as Trump or run a campaign as chaotic to overcome the partisan fundamentals? And while candidates may matter in the highly visible and media intensive presidential contest, do they matter down ballot? A better test of which wins out in a conflict between personality and partisanship will come from the Indiana Senate race.
Evan Bayh, for those who don’t know, is the former Democratic Senator from Indiana who served two terms before retiring in 2010. He is now running for his former Senate seat, which is open due to the retirement of Daniel Coats. During his time in the Senate, he was known as a centrist, which should help him win in right-leaning Indiana. Furthermore, Bayh is a name that carries a great deal of weight, as Evan Bayh’s father was also a Senator from the state. Evan Bayh himself has won election to statewide office five times without losing in the process, serving two terms as Governor after a brief stint as Indiana Secretary of State, then being elected twice as US Senator. Following his first term as Governor, he won re-election with over 60% of the vote, and captured more than 60% in each of his previous Senate bids. The people in Indiana know Evan Bayh, and they like him.
The biggest factor working against Evan Bayh would appear to be his political affiliation. Indiana is a solid red state, and a state that in all likelihood will vote for Donald Trump, even with the possibility of a national blowout against him. The current Governor is the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, and though the Governor’s race may be tight this year, Republicans have controlled the Governorship of Indiana for the last decade, and both statehouses since 2011. Even in the 2008 Obama landslide, Obama only took the state by about a point. The point here is, while Democrats can win in Indiana, the state’s profile gives a distinct advantage to Republicans.
This is where the test of partisanship versus personality comes into play. Simply looking at the candidates, Evan Bayh should win, though Todd Young is no Richard Mourdock. Bayh is a former popular two-term Governor and two-term Senator. However, when he was elected to both positions, the state was friendlier to Democrats. As even state elections have become more nationalized and partisan, Indiana has become much friendlier territory for Republicans. Will Bayh’s name recognition, centrism, and former popularity be enough to carry the day for him? Or, in this hyper-partisan environment, will voters default to their preferred party, choosing to vote for which party they want in the Senate as opposed to which person? This choice will give us much greater insight into whether it is the candidates themselves who matter in modern elections, or whether they simply serve as standard bearers for the party they represent.