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.

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%.


Blogger Antonio D. French said...

I think your assessment is dead-on, Oracle. The Gambaro campaign has not capitalized on what should have been a strategic advantage.

But with four weeks left, there is still time for Gambaro to pull his campaign together and for something to happen to blow this campaign wide open. Exactly what that is, I have no idea. But I'm looking.

July 9, 2006 at 9:43 AM  
Blogger Travis Reems said...

While the other four candidates are certainly less conservative than Derio Gambaro, I wouldn't lump them all together in the liberal basket. For example, Rep. El-Amin is socially conservative, while upholding other Democratic principles. So, she will draw some of the religious votes from Mr. Gambaro of those voters that would tend to be moderate or liberal on all bu social issues. The one thing that the four candidates except Jeff Smith have in their favor is name/family recognition. But even Jeff Smith has countered that well with his 2004 Congressional campaign and the recent documentary about that campaign. His door-to-door foot campaign also puts a huge dent in name/family recognition lead of the other four candidates.

When the financials hit the web, we will see just what type of momentum the candidates made in this last quarter, and who has the capital life-blood to bring the election home.

July 9, 2006 at 11:34 AM  
Anonymous Bubba said...

Oracle, another tantalizing analytic gem. My focus regarding Gambaro was his heavy courting of crossover Republicans in the 4th District where they are pretty well concentrated. That part of Derio and Shonagh's current strategy is not being maximized as well--as you note. As my comrade Antonio points out, there may be a window for Derio to make a late run. However, having dealt directly with the Smith ground war in the '04 3rd CD campaign and being eyewitness to the unbelievable expansion and daily execution of that already phenomenal grass roots operation, I would be shocked if Jeff is not elected the next 4th District Senator. The candidate field that evolved reinforces the continuous political infighting in the North Side and still seemingly is the wild card in this race in my view.

July 9, 2006 at 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Kevin J. said...

I guess I don't see the "niche" strategy. I hear Derio speaking about important topics, like restoring Medicaid cuts, campaign finance reform and changing the fee office system.

Moreover, Smith's famed grassroots orgnaization has hardly been out there. I hear he did almost nothing for the minimum wage campaign, despite all his big talk. Supposedly, he didn't gather a single signature himself - and only had a couple volunteers help for a fews on one day.

To me, Smith comes across as a guy who will say and do anything to get elected. This race is wide open - with all four major candidates probably starting with a natural base of 18-21%, but each with an opportunity to breakthrough in the final four weeks.

July 9, 2006 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

Thanks for all of the above comments, all very insightful. Nevertheless, I have some responses:

I dispute Travis' characterization of Yaphett El-Amin as a social conservative. I don't think NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri would repeatedly endorse her if she were. (For the record, NARAL has formally endorsed four candidates in this contest--everyone but Gambaro.)

The "important topics" that Kevin mentions Gambaro speaking about--Medicaid cuts, campaign finance reform and fee office problems--are standard "red meat" topics for any and all Democratic candidates. (Recall the 2004 Democratic presidential primaries, when all the candidates spent all their time outdoing one another in criticizing Bush, which got great cheers from the crowd but did nothing to distinguish Kerry from Dean from Gephardt, etc. It's sorta like a comedian getting cheap applause when he's dying by naming the home town.) In Gambaro's case, he needs to do so just to reassure Democrats that he is really a Democrat. Those issues do nothing to distinguish his candidacy from any of his opponents, because they all agree about those issues.

Candidate bases are not equal. Kenny Jones' is much smaller than anyone else's. Boykins support seems broad but shallow, while El-Amin's is concentrated and loyal. Smith's is diverse but less reliable. Gambaro's is as described in the main post.

The disagreement between bubba and kevin over the effectiveness of the Smith ground game is probably the key to the election. Apathy abounds, and turnout will be relatively low, probably less than 20,000 votes in the district. Effective GOTV efforts work disproportionately well in low-turnout elections. (Smith's great 2004 GOTV effort was diluted by the high turnout of that election.) Smith's challenge is that his voting base consists of younger voters with historically poor turnout histories, so it will be both challenging and critical for Smith's GOTV effort to work. If Smith can recreate the magic of 2004, he probably wins, and if not, he could finish 3rd, with an African American candidate (most likely El-Amin) pulling off the win.

July 9, 2006 at 9:34 PM  
Blogger Josh Wiese said...

At this point I really see it being Jeff and Yaphett. I do not discount Derio or Amber but unless they have some magic plan to GOTV these last four weeks I think it will boil down to Jeff or yaphett.

I do disagree that the Gambaro campaign hasnt capitlaized on it's "niche" . Derio has definetly honed his stump speech, got his very ugly signs out there (there all f***** ugly by the by), and his been working the NA goups. I have seen his campaign more and more in my neck of the woods as of late (South City/Clifton Heights) which means that the last four weeks will be full on for him.

If Yaphett can GOTV and push the "take back the 4th" I think she'll have it. Jeff will never get derio's folks and vice versa.

I'd also like to see how theyre doing money wise. I heard a Jeff Smith commercial at my downtown dry cleaner which was on the Beat- some guy was endorsing him and praising his race relations record etc..

And finally- what happens to the losers?

July 9, 2006 at 9:51 PM  
Anonymous Bubba said...

Yo Kevbo, if you think Jeff comes across as someone who will say anything to get elected, what the heck do you call your boy Derio. Dude was done and then this race came along and those who want to stop Jeff from becoming elected pushed, prodded, and cajoled Derio to get in the race as a stalking horse candidate solely to attempt to ensure Jeff does not get elected. Bro, check your political thermometer.

July 10, 2006 at 12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kevin, I am not sure where you got your information about the minimum wage and Jeff Smith. I was one of the people who helped gather petition signatures for the minimum wage through Smith's campaign. Smith recruited and then trained two dozen volunteers to do so; I underwent a training the Thursday before the school board election. I gathered signatures twice that weekend while canvassing neighborhoods and then on election day outside the pollsites all day. I know that at least a dozen other pollsites were also occupied throughout the day, in the south, central, and northern parts of the city. (I know because I trained with many of the people who were assigned to those sites, and when I saw Smith on election day, I asked him where some of them were stationed.)

Together we got hundreds of signatures. Sure we'd have liked to have gathered more, but it's incorrect to say that Smith didn't put time into it. Not only did he organize two rounds of volunteer training (there was a second one that Monday evening) but he visited all of us at the polls on election day and I watched him personally ask for and receive several signatures. So, please check your facts, Kevin.

July 10, 2006 at 12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One other factor needs to be considered: There are two competitive races to fill Rep. El-Amin's and Rep. Boykins' seats, while there is nothing lower down the ballot to boost turnout in the southern half of the district.

July 10, 2006 at 8:13 AM  
Blogger Travis Reems said...


You've fallen in the single-issue trap that so many before you have. While Rep. El-Amin may be supportive of a woman's right to choose, on other social issues she is still conservative. Not nearly as much as Derio Gambaro, but close enough.

Derio Gambaro just can't win. For all the reasons everyone has previously discussed (Republican nature, small appeal, slick politician style, etc.).

Rep. Boykins is widely viewed as one of the least diligent and least effective state Reps., having consistently missed more votes than 98-99% of all reps - and not just during the session when her mom was sick. Someone with a record like that is not someone who the residents of the 4th District want representing them.

The big upset will be when Kenny Jones takes FAR more votes than the pundits are calling for. Kenny Jones is the dark horse in this campaign and will come through in the end to receive many votes, if not entire wards. I would not be surprised if Kenny Jones takes 3rd or a not-so-close 2nd to Jeff Smith.

Finally, you hit the nail on the head with your analysis of the Jeff Smith camp having a very broad appeal--the broadest of all candidates. Jeff Smith truly represents the residents of the 4th district, not a group here or there, but all the residents.

July 10, 2006 at 11:06 AM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

The comment about the effect on turnout of two competitive state rep races in the north end of the district is well taken, but there's less there than meets the eye. The primary combatants in the state rep races are spouses of senate candidates and allies of rival senate candidates, so most of the people drawn to those contests are already drawn by the senate contest itself. The additional voters that might be drawn to the polls would be fans of Karla May, Sharon Tyus or Bob Bartlett, which won't affect the senate district all that much.

July 10, 2006 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger St. Louis Oracle said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

July 10, 2006 at 1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


We need your help on getting to the bottom of this crazy poll El-Amin announced with her press release last week.

If she didn't pay for the poll who did and how did she get her hands on it? Could this be the ethics scandal that completely changes the dynamics of this race or are they covering their tracks before sending out the financial report for the 2nd quarter? Is this something or nothing? Will the media do anything about it?

July 18, 2006 at 12:13 AM  

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