Although he didn’t invent the expression, the late Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill is credited with turning the phrase, “All politics is local,” into an operating philosophy.
In essence, O’Neill meant voters are most concerned about issues closest to home. Are the roads in good repair? Is the garbage being picked up? Are the local schools doing a good job? Are my taxes going up? It was the view of one brought up in the urban ward politics of old, but many other politicians of his era thought the same way.
Not so much anymore.
“About 50 cents of every tax dollar raised in the United States is raised by state and local government and yet the attention citizens pay to different levels of government, is much more focused on what’s happening in Washington, D.C, than what’s going in in Springfield or Chicago,” said Daniel J. Hopkins, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of, “The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized.”
One sign of nationalization: a predominance of out-of-state money in campaigns
According to the Public Research Interest Group, in 2016, 77% of funding for the 34 U.S. Senate races came from out of state. In the seven swing state U.S. Senate races, the figure was even higher, 85%. But Hopkins says the trend began forming decades ago.
“As late as 1992, two thirds of all the money that members of Congress raised came from within the state they represented. As of 2012, it was two-thirds coming from out of state,” said Hopkins. “Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have built national reputations on cable TV rather than on their ability to bring home specific policies or benefits for their constituents.”
Hopkins says the dominance of national media, particularly cable news and websites, combined with the decline in staffing and readership at local newspapers, means voters know and care more about the tone set by national politicians and party leaders than politicians closer to home.
That, in turn, increases the influence of national issues even in state and local elections. “If you don’t know that much about the person who represents you in Congress, it’s easy to vote a straight party ballot and not vote for any person if they’re not in your party,” said Hopkins.
Even in this non-Presidential voting year, national issues stand to play a large role in state and local campaigns. For Republicans, inflation, rising crime, Covid restrictions and parental oversight of education have emerged as areas of attack. For Democrats, voter suppression and the continuing influence of former President Donald Trump are ongoing issues.
Rep. Robin Kelly, the chair of the Illinois Democratic Party, says her members are focusing on their accomplishments. “We’ve been working really, really hard on issues like the American Rescue Plan where every state, county, and town received money from the federal government. We were able to pass the infrastructure bill which was extremely important. More Americans are vaccinated and boosted and we’ll bring that up,” said Kelly. “We had only one Republican vote on the American Rescue Plan even though the Republicans are bragging about bringing money back to their districts. They can’t seem to remove Donald Trump from their psyche. They seem to be tied to the hip with him. But we’re going to run first on the good things that we’ve been able to do.”
(Note: Through a spokesman, Illinois Republican Chair Don Tracy declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Democrats face monumental headwinds in the 2022 election cycle. The party of the President in power typically loses seats in an off-year election, a pattern that’s prevailed since the 1930s. At least, until the 1998 and 2002 midterms in which the Democrats gained under President Clinton and the Republicans increased their margin under President Bush.
“Then it looked like midterm losses might be going away. But in hindsight those were weird elections,” said Brian Gaines, political science professor at the University of Illinois. “The impeachment of Clinton was not that popular. 2002 was completely dominated by the public opinion boost for Bush after September 11th. So, then we had 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018, four elections in a row with really big midterm swings. The President’s party has been hammered, so going ahead, that’s what I think is going to happen again.”
“Less frequent voters who make up a President’s extra margin in a Presidential year just don’t show up in midterms,” added Gaines.
That trend also troubles Democratic political consultant Delmarie Cobb, but she notes there are exceptions. “We did see an exception in 2018, when people were angered by Donald Trump’s actions and so this time you’ve got to hope that we see the same exception again because it’s critical this time given that Democrats have such a slim margin in the House and Senate. In particular, when African Americans don’t turn out, Democrats don’t win,” said Cobb.
One national issue that’s a wild card is the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think the pandemic is going to be the number one issue, even with rising inflation. It’s a different issue from traditional ones. It’s national but policies differ from state to state and so will voters’ reactions. I think incumbent governors, Democrats and Republicans, are going to be on the hot seat to justify what they’ve done. And (President) Biden promised to shut down the virus and he hasn’t done that, partially because of vaccine resistance,” said Gaines.
Another wild card is the Trump Effect. “In the Republican Party, there’s a litmus test: Are you with Trump or are you against him,” said Kelly. “The Republicans in a way are stuck with Donald Trump. He’s still ruling the roost.”
The perception is that Republicans will be more fired up than Democrats to vote in 2022. In part, because of the resentment raised by Trump’s lie that the 2018 election was stolen, as well as because of inflation and rising crime. And some Democrats fear that’s true.
“The Republicans will be highly motivated, but they’re always motivated,” said Cobb. “That’s why they’re doing so much better than Democrats because they’re always motivated. They never stop being motivated. And Democrats have to have that same kind of determination.”