Barack Obama
President Obama speaks before 2010 midterm elections. Emory faculty discussed the Democratic Party's chances recently at Tull Auditorium. PHOTO: Neon Tommy/Flickr

American soldiers are still stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan but, unlike the presidential election of 2008, worries at home will likely drive voter sentiment in Tuesday’s midterm elections say Emory faculty members.

In particular, the economy weighs heavily on minds and speaks loudly in the media.

“There’s no doubt the economy plays a critical role in all types of elections,” said Tom Smith, assistant professor in the practice of finance at Goizueta Business School. “People vote lunch bucket over, and over and over again. It’s not clear how much they vote economy during midterm elections — I think it’s a very unique midterm election in that respect.”

Smith was one of eight professors across disciplines that gathered for the first Emory Meets Emory event Friday at Emory School of Law. The panel, “President Obama and the Midterm Elections,” examined issues leading voters and affecting the future of both political parties.

The opinion shared in Friday’s panel was the Democratic majority will at least shrink in both houses of Congress with a G.O.P. majority likely emerging in the House when polls close.

Regardless, what Americans see as important appears to have fundamentally changed.

“Foreign policy has really taken a back seat in American politics the last couple of years,” said Dan Reiter, a political science professor. “In the midterm election campaigns everyone is screaming about everything except foreign policy.”

Political science professors Andrea Gillespie and Alan Abramowitz discussed the possible fate of the Democratic and Republican party after Tuesday’s election.

Gillespie noted turnout in midterm elections is historically low (around 37 percent of the electorate voted in the past two midterms). She doubts 2010 will be different.

Abramowitz said the current Democratic majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate can be considered “unnatural” because short-term factors in 2008 voter fervor, including an unpopular war in Iraq and the height of the economic recession, led to sweeping changes.

Historically, says Abramowitz, midterms don’t go well for the majority or the party that recently reclaimed the presidency as Democrats did in 2008. Democrats are also holding a large number of traditionally Republican seats. Added Abramowitz: 47 of 256 Democratic seats in the House represent districts that normally vote Republican.

But the economy is galvanizing public opinion in ways usually unseen in midterm campaigns.

“A lot of surveys indicate most people don’t know the recession is over,” Smith said. “This is puzzling, [but] it didn’t take a lot of economists by surprise because we’ve been talking about how the economy has been building over the last year or so.”

Unemployment remains stubbornly high which, according to Smith, makes it tough for people to feel good about the economy.

This drives debate over government spending and policies to stimulate the market.

“That does not bode well for many incumbents,” Smith said. “How do you convince people the economy has turned a corner? We have to encourage firms that are now profitable to actually hire workers… I think there needs to be some big government policies that create additional incentives for firms to hire workers. Firms are afraid we’re going into a double-dip recession; with those fears, they’re not hiring.”

Smith said there’s a common misunderstanding about government involvement in economic markets. He says “markets are messy” and letting an invisible hand work isn’t always the best course. He likened the economy to a fruit orchard facing a fungus. Some trees will die, but others will grow immune and stronger. But this, according to Smith, doesn’t account for reoccurring problems like frost, drought or wind.

Neither does it make up for the loss of food.

Additional uncertainties from government regulation — from Wall Street to healthcare reform — also may have employers on the fence and cause some changes in voter appetite Tuesday.

Either way, the panel expects heated battles over most every issue when the new Congress convenes.

“If anyone thinks we’re going to enter into a new age of bipartisanship and harmony, I think that’s extremely unlikely to happen,” Abramowitz said.