May 19, 2010
Election day

Yesterday was an election day in America, meaning that today is the day for armchair quarterbacks to explain what it all means. The talking heads almost always get it wrong.  Here’s my take.

There were four races nationwide that drew the lion’s share of attention: the Pennsylvania Senate primary for the Democratic Party; the Arkansas Senate primary for the Democratic Party; the Kentucky Senate primary for the Republican Party, and the special election to fill John Murtha’s House seat in Pennsylvania’s 12th District.  The attention paid to these races makes sense: Senate primaries are always interesting when incumbents are struggling, and PA 12 was the only House district in the US to vote Kerry in 2004 and then McCain in 2008, suggesting it was a possible Republican “get.”  There were other interesting races out there, but these were certainly a reasonable set to focus on.

In at least two of the cases the outcomes of these races were interesting without being all that surprising.  They were a bit more interesting in two others.  The two interesting races that were not all that surprising were Arlen Specter losing in PA, and Blanche Lincoln being forced into a runoff in Arkansas.  Neither was particularly surprising for a simple reason: each state’s rules promote the outcomes that occurred.

The relationship between election rules and election outcomes is one of the least-appreciated aspects of American politics today.  The effects of rules on outcomes is profound, however.  For example, PA runs a closed primary system.  One has to preregister as a Democrat in order to vote in a Democratic primary.  And it turns out that people who register a party identification are almost always more ideologically committed to their party than are casual identifiers and independents.  In the context of US politics, registered Democrats are almost always more liberal than other Democrats who don’t register; Republican registrants are more conservative than non-registering Republicans.

Seen from this perspective, Specter’s loss is not particularly surprising.  A former Republican, he lost to a liberal Democrat in front of a liberal Democratic electorate.  His problems were intensified by the fact that this is a non-presidential election year—an off-year.  Off year elections tend to draw smaller voter turnout, and the voters who do show up are almost always more ideologically committed than are presidential election year voters.  Thus Specter was hit by the double whammy of a closed primary in an off-year election: not a good combination for a life long Republican.  His major hope of winning was in driving off credible Democratic challengers (by getting Obama’s endorsement, for example).  Once a credible liberal emerged (which was not inevitable), Specter was in trouble. 

Likewise, Arkansas, like many Southern states, requires that primary winners get 50% of the vote +1.  This rule is a holdover from Jim Crow, and was designed to prevent minorities—by which I mean racial and ethnic minorities—from pooling together a plurality of votes to win primaries if there were more than one white, protestant contender for a Democratic primary nomination. (Only Democratic primaries used to matter in the South, after all.)  While Arkansas does not use closed primaries, the off-year pattern of ideologically-driven voters going to the polls meant that once a credible liberal challenger emerged, Lincoln was unlikely to win a clear majority in a multi-person primary.  She may yet win the runoff, however: incumbents usually win runoffs.

The Kentucky race was more interesting, although perhaps less so than the media buzz would have it.  Again, off-year elections bring out the ideologues, and in the KY case you had the “establishment” conservative running against the “tea party” conservative.  It is not clear that Rand Paul actually ran as the kind of libertarian his father is, and that the tea party (sort of) embodies, but the interaction of the Paul name and associative marketing with the tea party brought lots of money and attention to Paul’s campaign.  What will be even more interesting to see, however, is if he wins in the fall.  After all, presenting yourself as an ideologue is a great way to win in an electorate of ideologues.  It may not work in front of a more general audience.  The Kentucky general election will be the first real test of the tea party movement in electoral terms.

PA 12 was perhaps the most interesting of all.  When the seat came open on Rep. Murtha’s death, the Republicans targeted it as a potential pickup.  It is mostly rural and in southwest PA coal country; it voted McCain in 2008.  However, in what was the only general election on yesterday’s ballot, meaning that voters of all stripes could show up and vote, the Democrat won.  Indeed, as the tea party movement has seemingly raged across America, the Democratic candidate has won every special election held since 2008. 

Notably, given that yesterday’s election was a primary day for the most part, voter turnout for the PA 12 special election was low. In the fall, when the seat has to be contested again, turnout will likely be higher, which will change the dynamics of the race.  However, low turnout races tend to favor ideologues because they are committed and engaged whereas non-ideologues tend to be less so.  In other words, if tea party and conservative passions are really quite as pervasive as all the media attention they get suggest they are, PA 12 should have been a likely candidate for a Republican, conservative victory.  That the Democrats kept the seat in such circumstances is more than a little interesting.

A final point (for those who have made it all the way through this long post): primary electorates are usually profoundly different from general election electorates.  The passions of primary electorates often produce candidates who make bad general election fits with their publics.  Joe Sestak in PA may turn out to be a bomb on a statewide stage.  So might Rand Paul.  View any claim that a certain primary outcome MEANS SOMETHING for national politics as a whole with great skepticism.  All the primary really decided is who will get to run in the general election.  (Unless, as seems to happen primary winners resign in scandal after winning.  Indiana, anyone?  Or, for that matter, Illinois?) It’s only after the general election that we can try to figure out where we are going from where we have been.