May 12 2014

Looking back, looking forward…

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County


The Election that barely was, and the election to come

It kinda almost felt like this would happen.

It kinda almost felt like this would happen.

Before I begin, I want to congratulate all the candidates who ran in the Democratic and Republican primaries that just concluded. Your desire to serve your community is admirable, whether we agree on the specifics or not.

As a candidate in recovery (potentially backsliding maybe some day), I can say I understand what many of you went through, and the sacrifices you made to run. Running, in and of itself, is a service to your community. You have given your community the opportunity to make a choice. The outcome doesn’t diminish the service.

I understand if that feels like cold comfort now, but it helped get me through the dark days of late summer 2012.

/endniceties

Now that the election is over, just about everyone is looking to analyze what happened. The Election Commission doesn’t have any reports up now, so all we have are these breakdowns from the CA. They’re helpful in that they’re also all we have. But no one should read too much into the top line results beyond who won.

I know that won’t stop folks…and it won’t stop me from saying a few things now, but those precinct by precinct numbers are instructive. I’ll be reserving a lot of judgement until I can go through those numbers.

Until then, here’s some observation, mixed with wild speculation, and a smdige of history.

Turnout didn’t turn out

Where are the voters?

Where are the voters?

There were just over 10k fewer voters in this May primary as opposed to 2010.

The bulk of this is because of depressed GOP turnout (down over 12k votes from 2010). This is probably due to the majority of the primaries already being decided on the GOP side of the ballot. Its interesting that about 2100 more Democrats showed up this time as opposed to last. This is probably due to a perceived tight race at the top of the ticket, and some really tight ones down ticket (I’m talking to you District 10).

Since the last couple of days of Early Voting, everyone has been bemoaning the low turnout. I attribute this to a bunch of things, but the two top ones are

1. No GOP top of ticket contests. – 12,000 GOP voters stayed at home. Had they showed, turnout would be higher (slightly) than 2010. I guarantee they won’s stay home in August.

2. The nature of the Primary – The short answer is its an insiders game (that includes the outside edges of the inside). This one takes a little bit longer to explain…and it may warrant a separate post, but the long and the short of it is, who gets targeted to receive mailers, phone calls and the like matters, and that list of people is diminishing with each passing election due to the way primaries are run and targeted. In short, its a diminishing returns game.

Here’s free observation number 3 (they’re all free, right?)

3. Where people did turnout was interesting. – In early voting, Districts 9 and 10 made up 25% of the total turnout (Dem and GOP participation). That slipped a little on election day I think, but I won’t know until all the reports are out (looks like about 22%, but that’s still high considering they’re only 15% of the County). Healthy and close (one decided by 26 votes apparently) elections drove that turnout…along with some high profile candidates.

Apples and Oranges

There aren’t too many lessons to take from the May Primary and apply to the August election (which is a split Primary/General).

There are some lessons to be learned from the history of the August elections generally.

1. Primary Voters – Which primary ballots voters choose will be important, but not necessarily 100% instructive. County voters don’t see a large partisan divide in most county-wide races. Candidates that have tried to “reach across the aisle” have been generally successful county-wide.

2. Precincts Matter – Where the voters come from will also be important. Its an open primary (for State and Federal offices). There are plenty of ticket splitters (folks that vote for both R’s and D’s) that vote in a party’s primary based on their importance to them/personal relationships…rather than pure partisan preference. Also, there are many areas of the County where the primary decides the election (11 of the 17 State House and Senate races) which can lead to some surprising outcomes.

3. Weak State Slate – Statewide races at the top of the ballot are not compelling…at this point – There is no significant contest in the GOP primary for Governor. No one candidate for Governor in the Democratic Primary has really distinguished themselves in Shelby Co. Lamar! is being challenged by a whackadoo, a perennial candidate, and some folks I’ve never heard of. The Democratic Senate Primary features a Democrat for Haslam, another perennial candidate, and an underfunded newcomer.

That’s the hard reality. The top race in August, outside of the County races themselves, may be Cohen vs. Wilkins. Based on August election history, I expect turnout of about 130k +/-10% countywide.

4. Contact Matters – In 2010, only two Democratic candidates sent a mailer to my home. Two. No one in this house has ever voted in a GOP primary…ever. Yet I received three to four mailers from Mark Luttrell. So did most of my neighbors. My precinct is a 60-40 Democratic split in November, but in August, when the candidates are not as well known, it can shift. The lesson: don’t depend on partisanship winning out over courtship. If you don’t contact your voters, don’t expect them to vote for you. (It should be noted, the two that did send mailers to my precinct, won the precinct 60/40 as expected.)

5. Turnout, turnout, turnout – Lower turnout doesn’t help County Democratic candidates – Over a whole bunch of August elections, a pretty specific number range of GOP voters that is consistent. I’ve talked to local Democratic groups about this number…but won’t reveal it here (its a state secret). That doesn’t account for crossover voting, which will happen. With over 300k in his coffers, GOP nominee Luttrell has the means to push turnout in traditionally GOP areas and appeal to ticket splitters. Democrats be warned. You will need to work hard and together to whip up turnout against the deep pockets of GOP incumbents.

6. Proficiency vs. partisanship – Go back to #1 and read that again. For County-wide candidates, your job is to reach out beyond your comfort zones, and show voters that you are as, or more proficient at the office you seek than your opponent. Those ticket splitters are looking for confidence of competence more than the letter next to your name. The lack of a clearly defined partisan difference in many races (what’s the difference between a Democratic Court Clerk and a Republican one?) is part of the cause here, especially in races where key social/fiscal issues of the day may not be relevant.

Game On

We’re right around 67 days to early voting and 87 days from the election. There are still a lot of open questions for this election. More than I care to get into right now.

But one thing seems clear, based on what I know of the situation…Democratic Candidates are going to have to use a fair amount of sweat equity to get the vote out. There’s not a whole lot of time to whip up the support needed for August…and even less time to draw distinctions.

Get your game face on. What happens in the next few weeks will play a big part in framing the Countywide push to August.