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.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Turnout dynamics for the August primary

The outcome of any election is determined by who votes. Answering the phone and telling a pollster who you like doesn’t count. Only the people who go to the trouble either to go to the polls during the 13-hour allotted period or to cast an absentee ballot actually count.

The Missouri primary is an “open” primary, meaning any registered voter can cast votes in any party’s primary. The voter has no obligation to vote for the same party or candidates in the November general election as she/he did in the August primary. Nevertheless, many voters shun voting in a primary. First, they need to be knowledgeable enough to be able to pick particular candidates, without being able to just vote a “straight ticket.” That is an intimidating chore to many. Primary voters are also obligated to announce to the election judge (and anyone else in earshot) which party’s ballot they want. That too is intimidating to many. And once the choice is made, one cannot “split the ticket” in the primary, by voting, for example, for a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator and for one of the five Republicans running for state auditor. As a result, primary elections almost always draw fewer voters than general elections, even in party-dominant areas like St. Louis where the most important decisions are made during the primary.

Even among voters willing to jump through the hoops to vote in a primary, turnout rates vary a lot. Primaries in non-presidential years (like this one) usually draw fewer voters than presidential-year primaries. For example, in the primary two years ago, early GOTV efforts by MTV’s “Rock the Vote” and George Soros-financed groups like America Coming Together had already increased political awareness among young voters who were highly motivated to unseat President George W. Bush, inspiring many of them to vote in a primary for the first time (even though Bush would not appear on the ballot until November). Other items on the same ballot, such as contentious races in other contests and controversial ballot measures, also raise turnout in a particular primary election. Two years ago, turnout in the primary was inflated by interest in the “definition of marriage” constitutional amendment and the contentious gubernatorial bout between Gov. Bob Holden and challenger Claire McCaskill.

All of those factors caused turnout in 2004 to be relatively high for a primary. Those factors aren’t present now to motivate voters to take part in the 2006 primary. Moreover, the external factors that are at work this year are having exactly the opposite effect. Most notably, numerous scandals involving prominent people in both major parties have made voters weary and disgusted with both Republicans and Democrats. Earlier primaries in other states have recorded very low turnouts, and Missouri shouldn’t be any different. Bottom line: Turnout on August 8 will be very low.

Each vote in a low-turnout election has disproportionately more clout than when diluted by the votes of more casual voters in a high-turnout election. Low-turnout elections favor the following kinds of candidates:

1. Those who are or who are backed by party regulars, especially those whose followers are dependent on party patronage. These people always vote, as though their very livelihood depends on it, because for many it really does. Their candidates do better when their votes aren't diluted by many casual voters.

2. Candidates with a good grassroots organizations, especially GOTV “ground games.” The candidate who can get more “casual” voters favoring her/him to vote has a big advantage over an opponent who cannot motivate her/his supporters off the couch. Only the votes that are actually cast count. The one-on-one action of grassroots activity reaches relatively few voters. The injection of those relatively few voters is most decisive in low-turnout elections.

3. Candidates who appeal to highly motivated single-issue voters. What motivates voters varies from year to year, but racial and ethnic appeals, stands appealing to either religious fervor or threats to lifestyle (such as abortion) and chauvinistic appeals to patriotism are usually good bets. Appeals to class warfare are less effective in a primary, when all of the contestants are probably on the same side.

These are the factors shaping what the Oracle’s crystal ball sees happening on August 8. The first predictions will surface in the special election edition of the Arch City Chronicle, which will be available in hardcopy on August 1.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

'Niche' strategy will fall short in 4th district

In a “plurality wins” system with no runoff, “niche” strategies often allow someone well out of step with the district’s majority to win in a multi-candidate field by staking out an isolated “niche” identity with voters against opponents who divide the majority vote. The niche may be a racial, ethnic, religious or lifestyle minority, but it most often is a minority ideological position. When several strong candidates voicing the majority views of the district vie for the same audience, a single candidate voicing the opposite point of view has a chance to unite the district’s minority into a voting bloc that, though well short of a majority, nevertheless wins the election by collecting more votes than any single proponent of the majority point of view.

Such a strategy gave Todd Akin the Republican nomination in 2000 for the congressional seat he now holds. Akin rode the support of highly motivated evangelical Christians (who are a minority in urban and suburban areas even among Republicans) to victory over four well-known, better funded and more moderate opponents to win with less than 26% of the vote. (That election was also a textbook case in effective GOTV work, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Some “niche” strategies are in progress in the August primary. The most prominent is in the Democratic primary for the state senate in the very progressive 4th District in the City of St. Louis. This is a district that gave Democrat John Kerry more than 80% of the vote while he lost Missouri decisively. Census figures say more than 55% are black or mixed race. A solid majority of its voters are pro-choice and solidly against school vouchers. The northern half of the district
is predominantly African American and solidly pro-choice. The more conservative southern half of the district is in the 3rd congressional district, scene of a spirited 10-candidate Democratic primary contest for the seat vacated by Rep. Richard Gephardt in 2004. In that part of the 4th District, the “pro-choice” candidates outpolled the “pro-life” candidates, 57% to 43%. While Russ Carnahan won the primary, runner-up Jeff Smith carried the 4th District portion by over five percentage points.

Smith, who is white, is now running for the 4th District senate seat, and the 28% of the vote he won in the congressional primary in the new district forms an excellent base of support. Many African Americans believe they are entitled to retake the seat that had been theirs for 40 years before the tenure of retiring incumbent Pat Dougherty, but their votes are divided among three well-known members of their community, two state reps (Amber Boykins and Yaphett El-Amin) and a former alderman (Kenny Jones). Derio Gambaro, a white former state rep. and former Election Board chair, rounds out the field.

Many observers dismiss Gambaro because his conservative views are so out of step with the majority of the district. But in a 5-way contest with four opponents who are all progressive, pro-choice, and favor civilian oversight over police, Gambaro’s pro-life, pro-police, pro-vouchers and other more-conservative-than-the-field stands are actually his strength. That’s his “niche.”

If you combine the southern half’s projected 43% pro-life vote, with assorted additional (albeit somewhat overlapping) support from white police officers and their families and proponents of school vouchers, Gambaro should have a better base of support than Smith or any of the African American candidates. Whether by intentional design or mere happenstance, Gambaro’s “niche” strategy makes this election his to lose.

But at this point, it looks like Gambaro is doing just that. The niche strategy requires unity within the niche, and that’s not happening. As fellow blogger Antonio French pointed out, the earliest breach came from the heart of Italian-American financial support, when Democratic Party powerbroker Luther Boykins, father of candidate Amber Boykins, got well-known and well-connected Italian-American powerbrokers Kim Tucci and former state rep. Anthony Ribaudo on board for the younger Boykins. They were influential in getting Boykins the endorsements of the south side 12th and 15th Wards. Boykins won’t win either ward, but Gambaro’s early viability suffered.

Ward leaders and organizations of the city’s two other most conservative wards (16 and 23), which together with the 12th ought to be Gambaro’s home turf, backed Smith. All three organizations had backed pro-life former state rep. Joan Barry in the 2004 congressional primary, and all three were carried by another pro-life candidate, Circuit Clerk Mariano Favazza. In the 16th, many believe that Gambaro’s perceived involvement in negative attacks against State Rep. (and 16th Ward Committeeman) Fred Kratky by Gambaro protege Shonagh Clements in the 2002 primary for Gambaro’s former house seat have come home to haunt in Kratky’s and the 16th Ward organization’s endorsement of Smith. The Oracle isn’t aware of any similar Gambaro gaffe that cost him the 23rd, but the imprimatur by committeeman Francis Slay, the dean of the party and father of the mayor, was a major boost for the Smith campaign. While Gambaro will still probably carry all three conservative wards, the organizational endorsements will hold down the margin Gambaro needs there to win the district.

In the 24th Ward, which was Gambaro’s home ward before redistricting sent Gambaro and his Hill neighborhood into the new 10th Ward, Gambaro won the organizational endorsement, but much bitterness remains with the ward’s alternate organization, which had been at odds with Gambaro’s organization and loyal to former Alderman Tom Bauer prior to Bauer’s recall. Bauer’s organization is even more conservative than the one that endorsed Gambaro, but it is doubtful that these natural ideological allies will forget the old hostilities. The electorate in the Dogtown, Clifton Heights and Ellendale neighborhoods comprising the 24th Ward are more progressive than either Democratic club, and Smith should win the ward handsomely.

While Gambaro has the formal and enthusiastic backing of most white police organizations, the basis of their loyalty is less about Gambaro’s opposition to civilian oversight than his record of support for eliminating city residency requirements for police officers. Most voters in Gambaro’s conservative south side base favor police residency requirements, and Gambaro’s opposition will alienate many of them.

Gambaro also appears to be his own worst enemy in personal appearances in his south side base. He consciously projects a confident, knowledgeable image, to contrast with college professor Smith’s lack of actual elective governmental experience. But there is a point where confidence morphs into cockiness and arrogance, and it appears to the Oracle and others in the audience that Gambaro regularly crosses the line. Catty remarks aimed at Smith have backfired.

Gambaro’s “niche” of conservative Democrats may account for as much as 25% of the district’s vote, and Republican crossovers (which Gambaro is openly courting) could add a couple more points, but there are enough erosions in the conservative niche to hold Gambaro’s share of the vote to 19-21%. That may be good enough for a respectable third-place finish, but not enough to win, which will take at least 30%.