Columns » Jay Barth

A new political chapter begins in Arkansas

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While there is much more diving into numbers from exit polls and vote tallies from Election 2014 to be done, it is clear that Arkansas's voters went beyond merely turning a page on the state's electoral past and instead created a wholly new chapter. In the process, three distinguishing elements of Arkansas's political tradition — its provincialism, its personalism and its populism — all shifted from the present to past tense in an election that served as the exclamation point for an era of dramatic change in the state's politics.

First, Arkansans have long expressed a limited use for the world beyond the state's borders and politicians have long relied upon this provincialism to connect with them. Despite some early signs of polling success, the wipeout of Sen. Mark Pryor's "Arkansas Comes First"-themed campaign shows the limitations of such messaging in contemporary Arkansas. This provincialism has also regularly been exhibited by state elections that seemed to operate in a different orbit than that of the rest of the nation, as was shown in Pryor's own 2002 election to the U.S. Senate in a year of national electoral pain for Democrats. Not so in 2014. Like other states with competitive races for the U.S. Senate, the forces that shaped the national trends (a negative referendum on the president personally, economic stressors promoted by wage flatness and security concerns) drove Arkansas electoral dynamics with massive spending by outside groups helping to write the script of the campaign, overpowering any attempts to introduce a local frame.

Arkansas also stood out historically through the deep personalism of its politics. To succeed in Arkansas's politics, candidates had to develop their own authentically distinctive personal style and to show up at events large and small to test them on voters' well-honed BS detectors. No more is the state's politics contested at summer festivals; it is now contested in 30-second television spots and effectively targeted web ads. This traditional personalism also showed itself in the propensity of Arkansas's picky voters to split votes in a manner that surpassed other states — famously so in the election of 1968 when George Wallace, Bill Fulbright and Win Rockefeller all registered wins in Arkansas. Split-ticket voting disappeared in this election, with Republicans the clear beneficiaries of its demise.

Looking at county-by-county results, the correlations in the share of the two-party vote between the candidates in the U.S. Senate race and other statewide races exceed +.98 (perfect correlation is +1.0) in all cases except that for governor (+.96) and attorney general (+.91). Such straight-ticket voting worked its way down to the local level as evidenced by the state legislative outcomes. While a bright spot for Arkansas Democrats, Little Rock's Clarke Tucker's vote totals almost perfectly matched those of Pryor in his district, showing the new partisan rigidity of Arkansas voters.

Finally, particularly distinguishing itself from other Southern states, Arkansas had a populist ideological bent. This showed itself in two primary ways. First, while emphatically traditionalistic when it came to social mores, Arkansas's voters were distinctly more likely to support governmental programs that would help aid the "little guy." Second, populism was wary of elites — political, economic or social — gaining too much power and created a variety of constitutional bulwarks against the coalescing of such power. In both ways, populism came tumbling down in Election 2014 in Arkansas. With the state's demographic changes and backlash to President Obama among white rural voters, individualism has swept the state like a cold front from the Great Plains. Perhaps most surprising were anti-populist votes on a series of constitutional reforms that work to limit the people's voice through direct democracy, to expand term limits for legislators, and to undermine the separation of powers. While some may question whether there was voter clarity in these actions, the pattern is unmistakable. Populism, perfected by potent Arkansas vote-getters ranging from Dale Bumpers to Mike Huckabee, is no longer the path to electoral success in Arkansas.

There is one other defining trait of Arkansas politicians across recent decades: No matter the party, Arkansas's elected officials have embraced pragmatic solutions to the state's vexing problems. Through their action on the private option Medicaid expansion program, we will soon know whether pragmatism has also gone the way of provincialism, personalism and populism.

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