The topic that will matter most in November's midterm elections

From ISIS to Ebola abroad and Ferguson and immigration at home, there's no shortage of hot topics this election cycle. But one topic will trump all the rest, according to public affairs experts.

There will be no shortage of hot topics on the campaign trail this fall, from Obamacare to Ebola to the US’ strategy for fighting ISIS. Yet public affairs experts say successful candidates will be those who can prove they’re not just another cog in the Washington machine.

The public’s trust in the legislative branch is at a new low of 28%, according to data from Gallup released this week. A Congress that seems to be perpetually stuck in gridlock, ready to fight the other side over any issue, is wearing the electorate thin.

Some experts from inside the Beltway say distrust of Congress across the board could be the biggest issue in and of itself as Americans head to the polls this November.

"There’s a general lack of trust and animosity toward Washington. In particular, you saw that reflected in the Eric Cantor primary, which is one of the reasons why an unknown, underfunded challenger was able to defeat a senior member of the House," says David French, SVP for government relations at the National Retail Federation.

He notes that historically, in the sixth year of a two-term presidency, the incumbent president’s party has lost seats in every midterm election but one – even by double-digit margins in the House at times.

"If you are in the president’s party, those numbers are stark and ominous," French says. "That trend is very powerful."

Some incumbents may have to scrap the strategy of touting their clout – usually a default tactic – lest that work against them this time around, adds Jonathan Grella, SVP of public affairs at the US Travel Association.

"People are angry and fed up," he says. "It does stand to motivate people to turn out."

At the moment, Republicans hold a 233 to 199 majority in the House of Representatives, and most experts say that is unlikely to change after this year’s midterms. However, the Senate, in which Democrats have a 53 to 45 advantage, is up for grabs.

Experts told PRWeek that candidates will likely appeal to voters by identifying themselves as change agents seeking reform, trying to shift the "business as usual" mentality.

"Republicans are likely to have an advantage," explains French. "[However], I temper that advantage somewhat that incumbents are not going to be popular –Washington is going to be identified as unpopular."

Jamie Moeller, MD of global public affairs at Ogilvy Public Relations, says Republicans may be in a better position this year than they were in 2010 or 2012 – years many people thought they would win a majority in the Senate.

"It had to do with local candidates and local races," he suggests. "They have a tremendous amount of resources, but it’s a little early to declare victory or defeat. [I] see a Senate that is within one or two votes either way."

It’s still the economy, stupid
Of course, candidate likability won’t be the only topic constituents are focused on this fall. After a summer with an exhausting range of breaking news both at home and abroad – from domestic unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, to a foreign threat in the extremist group ISIS and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa – experts agree domestic issues will be top of mind on Election Day.

Jim Papa, SVP and MD at Global Strategy Group, sees the economy and jobs as the top issues.

"Data and other recent polling show when it comes to what’s on people’s minds, it’s the status of the overall economy and how it’s affecting their families," he says.  

Moeller predicts that Election Day 2014 will not mirror "a national midterm election, such as 2010 and 2006 [were]." Instead, races are likely to be decided on "specific candidates and specific issues that for the most part will be issues that matter to a given state."

"Very rarely do midterm elections come down to foreign policy – 2006 would probably be an exception with the Iraq War," he explains. "In 2006, there was the unpopularity of the Iraq War and President George W. Bush being relatively unpopular. In 2010, you had wide dissatisfaction with the healthcare law. I don’t think we’re going to see that this time around."

While "the recent drumbeat of security issues," has contributed to a feeling of insecurity, adds Grella, the economy still dictates voters’ moods.

"It’s not necessarily going to swing the election on its own, but that drumbeat is making people feel uneasy after experiencing a recession and lingering frustrations about the way things are going," he says.

In an election cycle that’s about "the ground game," Moeller adds that issues such as healthcare have been diminished save "hardcore reformers." Instead, "it’s a question of intensity. In border states, immigration will be one of those, certainly," he says.

GOP catches up on marrying digital-traditional strategies
Grella notes that Republicans may be closing the gap in terms of innovation, noting that only a few years ago "most people would agree" Democrats had the advantage in their tactical approach to energize voters all the way to the polls.

"In the last few election cycles, Democrats proved to be better at it, using digital and social media more effectively, as well as even being smarter about things such as placement of TV ads," says Papa. "[This year,] it’s going to be very competitive for both parties."

Moeller adds that in 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign "married the latest social media tolls and all analytics with an old-school ground game" in a strategy that proved successful.

"Obama did it specifically in 2012," he recalls, "and Republicans saw that and largely caught up."

Of course, there’s one more big piece to the puzzle: money – and it will be a deciding factor, Moeller emphasizes.

"If you have the resources," he says, "it makes a big difference."

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