The issues that never took flight this election season

Protesters hold up signs at a Moral Monday rally Sept. 15 in Wilmington, N.C. (AP/The Star-News/Mike Spencer)

Americans tend to think that elections are decided on the basis of issues, even though the voters choose a person, not a policy position, when they cast their ballots. And this year, more than most, the issues that seemed to be shaping the debate have come and gone like the wind.

At the beginning of the year, Republicans believed they were going to run -- and win -- on their opposition to the Affordable Care Act, or, as they call it, Obamacare. You will remember that the Department of Health and Human Services botched the rollout of the exchanges last autumn, enrollments were lagging behind predictions by the end of the year, and Republicans were sure they had a winner. But by March, the enrollment numbers were exceeding analysts' predictions and average premiums did not go up as some had feared. The anti-Obamacare fervor seemed to peter out.

In fact, in some states, it was not Obamacare but the failure of Republican governors and legislatures to sign up for the expansion of Medicaid that has become an issue. When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, they invalidated a provision that would have allowed the federal government to withdraw its share of the state-federal partnership that funds Medicaid. This was seen as too coercive. It was still a good deal for the states to sign up for the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act: The feds paid for it all at first, and 90 percent of the costs in future years. But certain Republican governors understood that anything that could be seen as endorsing Obamacare would earn them a primary challenger and they declined the money.

A few Republicans bucked the trend, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who pushed through the expansion, arguing that whatever he thought of the Affordable CareAct, his job as governor was to help get the citizens of his state insured. Kasich is cruising to re-election.

Conversely, in Florida, incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott declined the federal dollars that came with Medicaid expansion. In August, a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Urban Institute showed that Scott's decision deprived the state of Florida of $66.1 billion in federal funding. That is a large chunk of change, and it caught the eye of voters. The most recent poll, from the University of North Florida, has Scott trailing his opponent by 5 percentage points.

So it is not that Obamacare was not an issue this November, just that it was not the kind of issue Republicans thought it would be.

Another issue that has not played out as expected is gun control. In December 2012, the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., seemed like the kind of event that would so shock the national conscience, Congress would be galvanized into action, and if they failed to do so, there would be a price to pay at the polls. But Congress was not able to pass even limited restrictions on the right to purchase and carry firearms, even though polls routinely showed that more than 80 percent of Americans supported proposals to close the gun show loophole that allows someone to purchase a gun without a background check.

The issue not only died in Congress, it died in the national conversation. Part of the reason for this is that many of the most endangered Democratic senators come from states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska, where Second Amendment rights are sacrosanct. Still, it is shocking that the murder of 20 children and six school employees in cold blood by a mentally unstable young man had absolutely no effect on the nation's political life.

One issue that appears as if it might backfire is voting rights. NCR recently ran a story about Kris Kobach, who is running for re-election as secretary of state in Kansas. Kobach's influence extends far beyond Kansas, as he has written draft legislation on immigration issues and voting restrictions that have passed in several Republican states.

The anger against the voting restriction laws has been palpable, prompting protests, especially from African-American voters already alarmed by the Supreme Court's decision to rule Section V of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional.

In the African-American community, the Voting Rights Act is understandably seen as one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement. The historical memory is filled with images of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis in Selma, Ala. In North Carolina, pastors have galvanized protests every week -- "Moral Mondays" -- to fight against the voting restrictions and other legislation passed by the GOP-controlled state house.

The restrictions come in several varieties. Some states have limited early voting, especially on Sundays, when black churches provide buses to bring people to the polls after services. In North Carolina, one of the most pernicious restrictions prevents students from voting in the precinct adjacent to their college, requiring them to vote at home. Election Day is a Tuesday, which is a school day. The Tar Heel state also ended same-day registration. Several states, including Wisconsin, have set new ID requirements, citing concerns about voter fraud, although there is precious little evidence that voter fraud is a major issue.

But the issue may backfire. First, the new restrictions and ID requirements made it necessary for community organizers to get out early, making sure people could overcome the changes. That degree of organization may carry over to higher than usual turnout on Election Day. Additionally, a flurry of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in October kept the issue in the headlines. The court upheld North Carolina's restrictions, but overturned the Wisconsin law, citing the expense involved in acquiring the necessary identification in order to vote, which amounted to a hidden poll tax. A lower court overturned a similarly restrictive law in Texas, but as this was written, state officials plan to appeal.

Finally, nothing makes a right more precious, and more likely to be exercised, than the prospect of its being taken away. In North Carolina, incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan has maintained a steady lead in the polls against her Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, who oversaw the enactment of the voter restriction laws as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Normally, good economic news in the weeks before an election helps the president's party. And President Barack Obama got some great economic news in October. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.9 percent, the lowest it has been at since May 2008. The deficits are down dramatically, in large part because of slowing health care costs resulting from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. But this good economic news has not translated into a surge for Democrats in polling.

Similarly, the fight against Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq has not created much of a wave one way or the other. Most Americans are horrified by images of beheadings, and want the U.S. government to do something about it, but a war-weary nation also does not want to put boots on the ground. In short, even as Republicans complain about the president's foreign policy, they seem unable to articulate anything they would do differently.

As noted at the beginning, voters select candidates at election time; they do not get to vote on particular issues. This year, that process mirrors the political discussion. No one issue appears to be dominant, and so voters are focusing on the candidates.

Two headlines in The Washington Post, both on Oct. 11, tell the tale. "Landrieu counting her friends," was the header for an article about Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's (and her family's) long association with powerful business interests in the state. "Senator's parents hit trail to preserve Ark. dynasty" was the headline for a story about Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor's family -- his dad, David, was a senator and governor of the state -- hitting the campaign trail for their son, who is in a tough re-election fight.

2014 may be the year when issues like Obamacare and the war in Iraq and the economy do not dictate the outcome. This year, politics may not only be local, but personal.

[Michael Sean Winters writes about religion and politics on his blog, Distinctly Catholic.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here