St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Pre-primary predictions: Congress 3rd District

This blog was created on August 5, 2004, but the following piece was written on July 24, 2004, and published on the Arch City Chronicle web site on July 25, 2004:

Handicapping the 2004 Primary: 3rd Congressional District

In the Democratic Primary for this safely Democratic seat, what was initially thought to be a coronation for State Rep. Russ Carnahan has turned into a wide-open free-for-all. There are 10 candidates, most of whom have significant credentials and bases of support. With so many strong candidates dividing the vote, factors that swing just a percentage point or two can be decisive. Any candidate who can top 25% will win.

The one-time sure thing for Carnahan fell victim to a growing perception that Russ is the dim bulb on the Carnahan family tree. He just doesn’t seem to measure up to the legacy of his father (the late Governor Mel) or his mother (former Senator Jean), and he is overshadowed as well by sister Robin (unopposed for the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State). These perceptions were compounded by disappointing early fundraising results. That was just enough to break down the early bandwagon. Now Russ must scratch it out with the others. Here are some of the factors that may decide who wins:

Ideology. The formerly conservative district is now nearly evenly divided between conservative and progressive ("liberal") voters, at least in the Democratic primary. A single dominant liberal or conservative would win easily, but there are too many strong candidates in both camps for that to happen. While the mix of social and economic issues make some candidates hard to peg, most observers believe that liberals will be drawn to Carnahan, Jeff Smith, Mark Smith, former State Rep. Jo Ann Karll, Corey Mohn and Mike Evans, while conservatives will opt among Sen. Steve Stoll, former State Rep. Joan Barry, Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza and Michael Bram. Jeff Smith especially appeals to liberals who favored Howard Dean prior to that campaign’s implosion, and the small but loyal cadre of Dennis Kucinich supporters has one of their own in Mohn.

Single-issue politics. Abortion and gay marriage are getting lots of attention. But in a divided field, the important issue is the one that sets out one major candidate from all the others. In a primary, that is often an issue on which a candidate’s position is out-of-sync with the party. The single issue that could be decisive in this contest is gun control. The field favors gun control (or at least opposes "conceal and carry"), except for Stoll and Bram, and Bram’s candidacy has lots of other problems. The National Rifle Association could snare a seat in a largely urban district with a stealth campaign to get its members to vote in the Democratic Primary for Stoll. I have no indication whether or not that’s actually happening.

Geography and "home turf" loyalty. The biggest geographic factor is the pervasive anti-St. Louis bias that outstate voters demonstrate regularly. Voters in Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve Counties identify more with outstate Missouri than their urban neighbor. This gives Stoll, from Jefferson County, a big advantage in those counties (about a third of the district). He has to share home-turf advantage with Karll in northern Jefferson County, but his conservative stances on abortion and guns sell better there than the pro-choice Karll. Barry is expected to run strong in her St. Louis County base, but 2002 redistricting removed much of that territory from the district. Some pundits give Carnahan a similar edge in south city, but the recently transplanted Rolla native is not really well positioned to claim hometown loyalty. On the other hand, his Rolla roots will help him encroach on Stoll’s turf south of the Meramec. Favazza will win a chunk of the conservative part of the city vote, but votes of city progressives are up for grabs. So are voters in central St. Louis County, from University City to Webster Groves.

Money and Media. The marginally inattentive voter (who throws away political doordrops and direct mail without looking at them) can only be reached by television and radio ads, and half the field has raised enough money to afford air time. Carnahan’s fundraising, though disappointing, is still better than any other Democrat (though well behind Republican Bill Federer), and Carnahan was first to hit the air. Jeff Smith’s war chest could challenge Carnahan on the airways, but rumors say he may spend it elsewhere (which would fail to capitalize on one of the photogenic candidate’s primary assets). Mark Smith, Stoll and Barry also have six-figure balances which could buy some air time. No one else raised as much as $35,000.

Organizational endorsements. Organizational endorsements are waning in importance, but could still provide the winning edge in a wide-open field like this. Carnahan has the support of Planned Parenthood and the gay rights organization PROMO, but not his mother’s home township (Clayton), which backed Jeff Smith. Barry enjoys healthy support from organized labor, in spite of her social conservatism, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association. She scored five important ward endorsements in Favazza’s back yard, but Favazza’s dominance in yard signs in those wards (an admittedly risky measure of support) suggests that many voters are unimpressed with those endorsements. Stoll enjoys support from teachers unions (despite his opposition to abortion rights) in addition to strong party backing south of the Meramec. He trumped the other pro-life candidates by winning the Missouri Right to Life endorsement. Stoll’s endorsement by the 9th Ward organization seems like an important coup in Carnahan’s home district, but that organization’s clout is eroded by the emerging political influence of the progressive Jeanette Mott Oxford.

Motivated grassroots organization. In the similarly wide-open 2000 Republican primary in the 2nd District, State Rep. Todd Akin defeated better known and better financed opponents because he had the most dedicated core of volunteers. Grassroots intensity often flows to candidates like Akin, underdogs with a fighting chance. So who has the fired up troops this year in the 3rd? The liberal candidate with the most intense grassroots loyalty seems to be Jeff Smith. He apparently picked up many of those who had been prepared to support State Sen. Joan Bray before she dropped out, and those people are among the best grassroots organizers in the area. Howard Dean’s endorsement adds to the atmosphere. The grassroots candidate of the Right is Favazza. Conservative rivals Stoll and Barry have garnered most of the conservative ward, township and organizational endorsements, but Favazza has beaten that before. His intensely loyal grassroots support outflanked overwhelming organizational opposition when he upset Circuit Clerk Mavis Thompson in 1998. This year, his carefully targeted high-turnout areas are seeing an impressive flurry of his signs and flyers. He is a shrewd strategist, he feasts on foes who underestimate him, and he knows how to win votes. However, his recent retaliatory strike against Barry-backing Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury was a strategic blunder that will backfire.

Gender loyalty. One of politics’ dirty little secrets is that, all things being equal, voters tend to vote for candidates of their own gender. Data show this to be especially true among women. This factor probably only amounts to one or two percentage points, but in a divided field, those votes could be decisive. It is noteworthy that while Jeff Smith inherited many of Bray’s former supporters, three prominent women in that camp backed Karll in the Clayton Township endorsement vote. There are only two women in the race, and the ideological differences between the socially conservative Barry and the liberal Karll lessen the chance that they will compete for the same votes.

Name confusion. Former Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. won his first election when a political unknown with the same last name as Bosley’s major opponent drew more votes than Bosley’s margin of victory. This year, unrelated Jeff and Mark Smith will each probably lose some votes to each other due to voter confusion, and the stronger Smith will lose more. On the other hand, Barry may pick up support from voters who confuse her with well-respected former candidate Bray.

Ballot placement. Jeff Smith won the lottery to appear first on the ballot. The bottom spot (often regarded as the next best ballot placement) belongs to Karll.

Bandwagon. Many casual, unaligned voters in the St. Louis area seem to use voting as an exercise in personal affirmation. They feel better about themselves if they vote for the candidate who wins. Subconsciously (or sometimes even consciously) they seek out who is going to win and then vote that way. This phenomenon helps explain why so many voters in the 3rd District voted for Dick Gephardt in his contest and (until 2000) for John Ashcroft in his, in the same trip to the polls! Carnahan entered the race as the "presumptive nominee," and he still enjoys that aura among those who aren’t paying attention. Television and radio ads over the last three weeks will reinforce this impression, unless another candidate can outdo Carnahan with more or better commercials. Only the monied candidates have a shot at this pathetic but frequently decisive bloc of voters.

Turnout. This factor interacts with the others and helps determine which ones matter. The voters who vote in low-turnout elections are the well informed regulars, whose decisions are less affected by media advertising. Strong grassroots candidates do well in low-turnout elections. The additional voters who participate in high-turnout elections tend to be marginally inattentive, and are the most likely to be swayed by bandwagon psychology and advertising. So a high turnout favors the monied candidates, while a low turnout favors candidates with strong organization backing and good grassroots organizations. Selective turnout is even more important. A controversial ballot measure or other primary contest that attracts voters of a particular ideological bent or those from just one region can be decisive. Amendment 2 may attract both progressives favoring gay marriage and "Religious Right" opponents, but the extra voters who take a Democratic ballot will be predominantly liberal. Contentious Democratic primaries for state representative for Carnahan’s old seat and in the western part of the city will also attract disproportionately liberal voters. On the other hand, the Democratic turnout in left-leaning central St. Louis County will be eroded by well-publicized Republican primary contests involving Clayton’s Gene McNary, Shrewsbury’s Kurt Odenwald and Webster Groves’ Joan McGivney. Barry’s south county base will also be eroded by contested GOP primaries involving Sen. Anita and Bob Yeckel.

This analysis has very little to say about Mark Smith, because I have never figured out the source of his support. He is personable and has sound proposals and a credible resume, but the same can be said of most of his opponents. His stint as police board president has attracted business backers, but not the Police Officers Association. Others apparently know what I don’t, though, because he is among the leading fundraisers and his lawn sign representation in my neighborhood is more than respectable. Other pundits list him among the handful given a decent chance of winning.

So, all things considered, who wins? The divided candidate field means that any of a half dozen candidates have a serious shot at winning, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if the person I have picked to come in 5th or 6th actually takes the prize.

If turnout is low, Stoll and Jeff Smith could win. Jeff Smith seems to be gaining momentum among seriously progressive Democrats, but I give the edge to Stoll if turnout is low. His campaign has a classic "niche" appeal that could snare the plurality in a divided field. His "niche" is conservative Democrats favoring his pro-life, pro-gun and anti-gay-marriage positions. Notably he is the only "serious" pro-gun Democrat in the contest (Bram doesn’t count). If the National Rifle Association gears up a stealth campaign to get its members to vote in the Democratic Primary, Stoll probably wins.

However, I believe that turnout will be at least moderate, and in the end, the sophisticated factors I have discussed will cancel each other out, leaving money and name recognition to carry the day. So in spite of campaign disappointments and the "dim bulb" aura alluded to earlier, Carnahan is my pick to win it all, with Stoll a close second. Barry’s smart media campaign identifying her with health care will vault her into third ahead of Jeff Smith. Karll, Favazza and Mark Smith will battle for fifth, while Mohn will lead the bottom three, ahead of Evans, with Bram coming in last.

In the Republican primary, "Religious Right" conservative and two-time nominee Bill Federer faces former Webster Groves council member Joan McGivney in a district that is much less conservative than in Federer’s prior runs. Federer has raised nearly $900,000 (50% more than the leading Democrat), but 90% has been frittered away with little to show for it. His campaign reports disclose substantial fundraising expenses, large wireless bills and high bank fees from a Virginia bank (including bounced check charges). The capable, articulate and moderate (almost liberal) McGivney will run well in her home turf and in less conservative additions to the district (Maplewood and portions of Richmond Heights, Clayton and University City). It is unclear whether Federer’s well-publicized legal hassles with a vindictive Gephardt campaign will draw sympathy from GOP voters or leave them wanting to try someone new. Federer has greater name recognition and intense loyalty from Religious Right voters, so the primary is his to lose.

Libertarian Kevin Babcock has no primary opposition.

The following addenda was published July 27, 2004, under Comments to the original piece:

Cross impact with Holden-McCaskill: I don't think the 3rd Dist primary impacts the gubernatorial primary meaningfully. However, I think the Holden-McCaskill race will increase turnout, and this highlights the factor I think many commentators have either missed or underestimated: the impact of the underinformed voter. Many people who don't ordinarily vote in primaries but who want to vote for or against Holden or McCaskill or for or against a contstitutional amendment will participate. They are very informed about the contest drawing them to the polls, but not necessarily about other contests. Some of those won't vote in the contests where they are underinformed, but many feel compelled to vote anyway. These are the "marginally inattentive" voters who are swayed by name recognition, tv ads and bandwagon perceptions (the desire to vote for the winner). Unless Carnahan's slippage can be better publicized outside of chat among political junkies (the marginally inattentive voter doesn't know this blog exists, and wouldn't bother to visit even if they did), the Holden-McCaskill turnout will favor the candidates on TV, and especially Carnahan. Other monied candidates could deflate this by running ads publicizing the slippage of support for Carnahan.

Jean Carnahan's tv ads backing Holden will help Russ Carnahan among Holden voters. In a 10-way race (Evans will remain on the ballot) won by a plurality, appealing to 45% supporting Holden is more important than repelling the 55% who oppose him. (Yes, I believe McCaskill will win by at least 10 points.)

Post's endorsement: It certainly enhances Mark Smith's credibility, but the importance of the Post endorsement diminishes every year. Circulation is down, and more people read (and give credence to) Jo Mannies' weekly column than the Post's daily editorial page. Most voters learn about the endorsement from ads of the endorsed candidate, not by actually seeing the editorial. The endorsement will help Mark take some liberal votes away from Jeff Smith and also some "marginally inattentive" votes away from Carnahan. But not very many.

More Mark Smith: A high-profile Barry supporter admits that Mark has the most effective tv spots. Of course, the "same high school as Dick Gephardt" line also describes GOP's Joan McGivney (and me for that matter).

I actually believe that Barry's own spots are the smartest. While she looks a little out of place appearing to direct the firefighters, her effective identification of herself with health care ties in with what's on many voters' minds right now.

Losing to a Republican? Some folks opposed to Jeff Smith are raising the spectre that he's so liberal he'll lose the general election. Not gonna happen. Joyce Aboussie redistricted the 3rd, removing Republican Sunset Hills and most of Tesson Ferry Township and substituting more St Louis City plus Democratic strongholds in Maplewood, eastern Clayton and Richmond Heights and southern U City. A Republican could carry Jefferson County and south St. Louis County, but Democrat majorities elsewhere would more than make up the difference. Democrats should pray that the RNCC targets this race, wasting its money here and making some other district more vulnerable to Democratic turnover. Even I couldn't lose this district if I were the Democratic nominee.

IRV: Maybe the 75% who end up supporting a losing candidate will be more interested in Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) after the primary.

The following addenda was published July 28, 2004, under Comments to the original piece:

Strong grassroots efforts are more important in low turnout elections than in high turnout elections. The people who are added to turnout by grassroots efforts fit the "motivated voter" definition. The 200-500 people (who otherwise wouldn't have voted) that Jeff Smith's coffees and other grassroots efforts motivate to vote are minor compared to the number of marginal nonvoters who are motivated to vote for or against constitutional amendments or for or against a high-profile gubernatorial candidate. The, say, 500 extra people that grassroots efforts get to the polls are more important in a 30,000-voter election than in a 50-100,000 voter turnout in the Democratic primary. (40,000 voted for Gephardt running unopposed in the last presidential year primary.) It's that extra several thousand voters that change a low turnout into a high turnout that comprise the "marginally inattentive" voting bloc that, sadly, will decide this election.

I wrote the following comment on August 1, under the "More back and forth" item on the Arch City Chronicle web site:

Carnahan will get a significant percentage of the vote in every region, not just home base. He could win the whole district without winning any political subdivision, by finishing a respectable 2nd or 3rd everywhere, behind different regional leaders. I'm sticking with my earlier prediction: Russ Carnahan rides the large, turnout-swelling wave of "underinformed" voters to victory.


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