Analysis of 2014 election in St. Louis County
St. Louis County voters just went through a highly unusual election for County Executive, but produced the usual result. Democrat Steve Stenger overcame the 2014 Republican wave and an open revolt on the part of African American leaders who publicly endorsed and worked for Republican Rick Stream, to eek out a narrow win (subject to possible recount). The St. Louis Post Dispatch (the area's only print daily) and St. Louis Public Radio have offered their somewhat simplistic analyzes, with which I disagree in part.
Analyzes based on raw vote noted that Stenger won north county, including the black townships, big, but lost his home base in south county. That was pretty much like the last election. I prefer to look instead at how the vote patterns differed between the elections.
The previous election for county executive was 2010, a Republican wave election much like 2014. Democratic County Executive Charley Dooley won reelection by four points, 51%-47%. But this year Dooley, the county's first African American to hold the post, lost a contentious Democratic Primary to Stenger. Four days after Dooley's stinging defeat, unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown was killed by a white policeman in Ferguson. Stenger stood by the decision of his political ally, Democratic County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, not to prosecute the officer without an indictment from a county grand jury. By the time of the general election, the grand jury had not announced a decision. In this environment, Stenger received 17 to 28 percentage points less support in the six townships with African American majorities than Dooley had received four years earlier. Stenger also underperformed by about 8 points in Creve Coeur Township, which includes a significant African American minority.
But while black support for Stenger was weak, black support for Stream was even weaker. Stream only picked up about 8 points of that defection, with the rest diffused among third-party and write-in candidates. Ordinarily black support for third-party candidates is much lower than white voters. African Americans' loyalty to the Democratic Party and especially its aversion to the Republican Party were far stronger than the organized black support for Stream. As a result, Stenger still handily beat Stream in the African American townships.
Nevertheless, the black defections would have been enough to erase the 4-point 2010 Democrat cushion if Stenger merely duplicated Dooley's vote from four years before in other areas. In most of the rest of the county, Stenger ran within a point or two of Dooley's 2010 performance, some up and some down. In Bonhomme Township (Stream's home base), Stream's strength caused Stenger to underperform Dooley by nearly five points.
Stream also beat Stenger in the four of the five townships comprising Stenger's council district . Yet that is where Stenger made up the votes he needed to win. Though trailing Stream there, Stenger ran four to six points better than Dooley. In blue-collar-Democrat Lemay Township, Stenger improved by more than 6 points, flipping a Dooley 2010 township loss to a Stenger 2014 win. All told, Stenger's overperformance (while losing) in south county offset enough of his underperformance (while winning) in black townships to maintain just enough of the four-point cushion from 2010.
So, in a nutshell, the template for this contest during a national Republican wave election was set four years before when Dooley won by four points. The biggest variance from the template was the African American revolt, which eliminated that cushion. The next biggest variance was home-base loyalty, with each candidate outperforming the template in his own base by about five points. Most of the rest of the county voted about like they had the time before, with variances canceling each other out. What made Stenger the winner was that Stenger's base (a county council district covering five townships) was bigger than Stream's base (a state rep district consisting mostly of just one township), making Stenger's relative home-base advantage decisive.
Other election observations
Challenges for Republican inroads with African Americans: Black voters' unwillingness to vote for a Republican candidate even while withholding their votes from the Democrat weakened the crossover effort for Stream. The problem appeared not to be Stream, but the weakness of the Republican brand in the black community. This weakness was confirmed in an astonishing way in the generally ignored contest for state auditor, in which incumbent Republican Tom Schweich ran with no Democrat opponent. Schweich, a candidate from the moderate “Danforth wing” of the Republican Party, won reelection easily, but he lost every black ward and township in the St. Louis County, the City of St. Louis and Kansas City to the Libertarian candidate, and in many cases even to the ultra conservative Constitution Party candidate as well.
One positive election development for Republicans, at least symbolically, was the election of several new black Republicans. These included Tim Scott of South Carolina to the U.S. Senate, Mia Love of Utah and Will Hurd of Texas to the U.S. House of Representatives, and locally, Shamed Dogan of Ballwin to the Missouri House of Representatives. While none of them represent black majority districts, Hurd unseated a Hispanic Democrat Congressman in a district that is two thirds Hispanic.
South county: St. Louis Public Radio's analysis had stated that “the results [in south county] offer some sobering news for Stenger, and reasons for optimism for Republicans.” Not really. South county is a swing area where Democrats do well in higher turnout presidential years (when Stenger's council seat is on the ballot) but where Republicans typically do well in low-turnout mid-term elections. Illustrative is the house district comprised by Mehlville, Green Park and part of Tesson Ferry Township, which elects a Democrat in presidential years and a Republican in mid-term elections. Stream's strength there was no surprise, but Stenger's ability to limit his losses there allowed him to win.
Zimmerman's big night: The Post-Dispatch quoted Mike Jones, a senior aide to Dooley, as stating that Zimmerman's totals were the “benchmark” that signified “where Stenger should have been,” but that observation belittled how well Zimmerman did. In addition to outpacing Stenger in every township, Zimmerman also ran ahead of Dooley's 2010 performance in every township, even the black townships. Zimmerman's 59% was comparable to what big Democrat winners get in St. Louis County in Democrat years. It was the same as President Obama got in his 2008 Democrat wave election and better than Obama did in his 2012 reelection, but Zimmerman accomplished it against the current in a Republican wave election.
Short coattails: The relative strength of Stenger and Stream in their home areas did not carry over to others on their party ballots. While Stenger, relatively speaking, did well in south county, the Democrat state representative representing Mehlville, Green Park and part of Tesson Ferry Township lost her seat to the Republican she unseated two years ago. Democrats got that seat back by picking up Stream's own house seat.