Friday, November 5, 2010

2010 in NC: tidal wave or rip tide?

Now that the dust appears to be settling on the 2010 mid-term elections and before we start analyzing for the 2012 presidential election, let’s take a look at what all this might mean.

Observation #1: it wasn’t just the Tea Party, but independents as well. The exit polls seem to indicate a double-whammy for the party-in-power. While voters who identify with both major parties went back to 2004 norms, it was the ideological composition of the electorate that really stood out.

For the past three elections, the ideology of the U.S. electorate remained stable—20% of US voters identified themselves as liberals, 44 to 47% identified as moderates, and 32-34% identified as conservatives. This year, conservatives ran their percentage up to 41, while moderates dropped to 39. Early analysis may indicate that there were just more conservatives out there who showed up, while moderates (read independents) stayed home. But you have to look at party identification as well to make that judgment.

U.S. voters who identified themselves as Republicans went from 37% of the electorate in ’04 to 32% in ’08, reflecting disenchantment with the GOP. This year, that number rebounded to 36%, tied with the Democratic percentage, leaving 28% identifying themselves as “independent.” But again, it was independents who made the difference, and they split 60/40 to the Republicans. More on that later.

Observation #2: what happened to North Carolina’s competitive congressional districts? We thought all along that the endangered species, commonly known as Southern conservative Democrats, would be wiped out this year. Yes, South Carolina’s John Spratt was taken out, but Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre, and Heath Shuler all survived. The surprise of the night came with Democrat Bob “Who are you!” Etheridge in the second congressional district. So maybe the Republican wave didn’t hit North Carolina as hard as we thought at the federal level, but a rip current did have an effect at the state level.

Observation #3: the rip tide pulled the N.C. General Assembly to the GOP. It was the undercurrent of the Republican wave—most identified with Rowan County’s own 77th House District—that is the biggest news coming out of 2010. Classic swing districts like the 77th are prone to being caught up in dramatic wave elections, but this one also pulled out a number of Democrats in “lean Democratic” districts in the state house and senate. So, for the first time in 112 years, the GOP has complete control the North Carolina General Assembly.

And if there’s one election that every political party wants to win every ten years, they will always take the one that occurs in a year ending in zero: because they get to redistrict.

With the power of redistricting, or redrawing the lines of the game, a political party can create “winnable” districts for their party and protect their incumbents, while at the same time making it difficult, if not impossible, for the minority party to regain majority status. In North Carolina, with the exception of getting the federal government’s approval, it’s in the hands of the GOP to redraw the lines of competition—and they will do it for their benefit. Thus, to the victor go the spoils, and this year’s spoil is gerrymandering.

One more observation: 2010 was the third “change” election we’ve seen. While Republicans had a good evening, especially at the state and local level due to mobilization and straight ticket voting, my crystal ball is giving an early hint to 2012: change may come again. If issues and concerns aren’t addressed, the American electorate (read: independents) is very willing to swing around until they find someone or some party that will address their concerns. In 2008, independents went 60/40 for Democrats—this year, they went 60/40 for Republicans. If neither party steps up to address issues, be careful of the swing in 2012.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

NC Early Voting: Comparing 2008 and 2010

Since we’re wrapping up early voting in North Carolina before the general election, here are some statistics that folks may find of interest:

· 2008: percentage of total absentee ballots cast of registered voters: 42
· 2010: percentage of total absentee ballots cast of registered voters (so far): 11.9

· Of all 2008 early votes cast, 51% were by registered Democrats, 30% by registered Republicans, and 18% by unaffiliated voters.
· Of all 2010 early votes cast (so far), 45% are by registered Democrats, 37% by registered Republicans, and 17% by registered unaffiliated voters.

This means, to me, that Republicans learned the Obama lesson of 2008 and are using early voting to bank core supporters—meaning that they are outperforming their state-wide voter registration figure of 32%. Along with the energy and enthusiasm levels of Republicans, this is a serious dent in Democrats’ performance from just two years ago.

Mecklenburg County is seeing an overperformance by registered Republicans to cast their votes (39% of early votes cast in Mecklenburg are from registered Republicans, who make up 28% of the voters), while Democratic voters are underperforming (registered Democrats make up 43%, compared to 46% of all registered voters). Especially noteworthy is that unaffiliated voters are significantly underperforming, making up only 18% of the early votes cast, compared to making up 26% of the registered voters in the county.

We know from the past exit polls that if you say you are identify with one party or the other, you will vote that way 89-93% of the time in NC (slightly higher levels for Reps than Dems, but still 9 in 10 times you vote that way). And independent (unaffiliated) voters voted 57/40 Rep/Dem in 06 and 53/45 Rep/Dem in 08. My bet this year is that independent voters break 60/40 Rep/Dem, so if that trend hold, Republicans may be making sufficient ground to overcome Democratic voter registration and patterns in a number of key races in the state.

In terms of voting by specific groups on a state-wide basis:

· Women who cast early vote in 08: 55% were registered Democrats, 28% were registered Republicans, and 17% were registered unaffiliated voters.
· Women who are casting early votes so far in 10: 51% registered Democrats, 35% registered Republicans, and 15% registered unaffiliated voters.

· Men who are casting early votes in 08: 47% registered Democrats, 33% registered Republicans, and 20% registered unaffiliated voters.
· Men who are casting early votes so far in 10: 40% registered Democrats, 40% registered Republicans, and 19% registered unaffiliated voters.

There appears, from the early voting patterns, to be a definite “gender gap” going on, but Republican women are making inroads within female voters. Registered male voters are definitely going back to their usual ways, which is Republican.

· White voters state-wide who cast early votes in 2008: 37% were registered Democrats, 42% registered Republicans, and 21% were registered unaffiliated voters.
· White voters who are casting early votes so far in 10 state-wide: 34% registered Democrats, 47% registered Republicans, and 19% registered unaffiliated voters. They make up 78% of all the early votes cast so far.

· Black voters state-wide who cast early votes in 2008: 89% were registered Democrats, 2% were registered Republicans, and 9 % were registered unaffiliated.
· Black voters who are casting early votes so far in 10 state-wide: 92% are registered Democrats, 1% registered Republicans, and 6% are registered unaffiliated. They make up 19% of all the early votes cast so far.

Of course, we won't know what these specific votes are until Tuesday, but I think with the typical party identification associated with voting preferences, we may be seeing the early waves of the expected Republican landslide. And these could be warning signs for conservative Democrats like Larry Kissell, Mike McIntyre, and Heath Shuler.

Friday, October 29, 2010

SC’s (as in, Scorched-earth Campaign) 5th Congressional District

It has been said that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” and if that is the case, then the South Carolina 5th Congressional District’s cup runneth over—literally.

According to most reports, the race between Democratic incumbent John Spratt and Republican challenge Mick Mulvaney is one of the most expensive U.S. House races this election. It ranks in the top twenty, with over $3 million spent. And what has that $3 million bought? A scorched earth policy that leaves very few viewers of the air war with a positive taste in their mouth.

Now don’t get me wrong—money is critical to politics, as the saying goes. And with the media markets that are spread out across this sprawling district—from Charlotte to Columbia across to Florence & Myrtle Beach—there’s a need for each campaign to have the resources to fight a modern air war. But there’s a point in which saturation is beyond needed, and we’re starting to get collateral damage from all the carpet bombing.

Republicans have viewed this district as one that they have been after for some time—it’s a solid Republican district at the presidential level, but Spratt has been able to hold on due to the power of incumbency of office. And with that power of incumbency comes fundraising prowess, to the tune of $1.8 million so far, according to’s website. To match Spratt, Mulvaney has raised $1.3 million as well. Not bad for a challenger against a long-time serving incumbent.

But both amounts are dwarfed (if that’s possible) with the amount of money flowing into the district from outside interest groups. Over $3 million dollars have been spent outside of the candidates’ campaigns on the race, with over two million of that figure going against Spratt. The National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of House Republicans, has spent over a million dollars itself, but so to have groups such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the NRA, and the National Federation of Independent Business.

But the Spratt-Mulvaney race is attracting a new breed of groups—the “60 Plus Association,” “American Future Fund,” and the “Citizens for a Working America PAC.” These three groups have spent nearly half a million dollars to influence the race, mostly by running a scorched earth campaign of negative campaign ads against Spratt. Welcome to the new rules of the game when it comes to money and campaign advertising.

For those of us in the Charlotte media market who are inundated with these ads for SC’s 5th, just remember—there’s another $3 million being let loose in the North Carolina 8th Congressional District battleground between Kissell and Johnson. Charlotte just happens to be in the cross-hairs of multiple air wars that doesn’t show any sign of relenting until Nov. 3rd.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Is North Carolina Micro-America?

So here's the political landscape: a widely-unpopular chief executive who has a unified party control of the legislature. A moody electorate where the opposition political party is energized, the middle is irritated, and the controlling political party is apathetic and perhaps demoralized. A number of legislative seats are up for grabs, and political analysts (like me) are saying that one of the legislative chambers will flip to control by the opposition.

Sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about national politics—it’s North Carolina politics, and the situation that the Democrats find themselves in at the national level is just as evident at the state level of government as well.

First, some basic facts about Tar Heel state government: Democrats control the Governor’s Mansion and the General Assembly—in the NC House of Representatives, it’s a 68-52 majority, while in the NC Senate, it’s a 30-20 split. So Democrats have the most to loose, and Bev Perdue’s lack of popularity (only 35% approve, according to a PPP Poll) is akin to President Obama’s favorability (or lack thereof) rating. So there’s one similarity between Raleigh and Washington.

Second, like in the U.S. Congress, the vast majority of seats are “safe” for one party or the other—meaning that right now, I could safely predict that 20 Democrats and 19 Republican NC Senate candidates will return to Raleigh. That’s pretty close, figuring you need 26 for the majority (maybe a few more might help). Factor in three Senate seats that will most likely flip from Democratic to Republican control (one of them is David Hoyle’s seat in Gastonia, the other two are in the mountains), and you’ve got Republicans close to the magic number to control the NC Senate.

Out of eight “toss-up” seats that are left, two are Republican control (count those in the Republican column this year), and the other six Democratic-controlled seats have 3 “open” seats. These are critical, because even in a year like this, it’s better to have an incumbent in swing districts than someone the voters don’t know very well.

So, if you were to bet on a potential Republican take-over this year in the legislature, look to the NC Senate—it would be the first time Republicans controlled the upper chamber since the end of the nineteenth century.

For the NC House, it’s again a matter of “safe” seats dominating (Democrats controlling 55 seats, Republicans controlling 52 seats out of the 120 total) and a handful of “swing” seats that will determine who controls the lower chamber. Right now, Democrats have more “swing” districts to defend, with two of those seats being open. There is a possibility that when Nov. 2nd’s dust settles, we could see a potential 60-60 tie again (see 2002 for what happens next), or one party has a bare 61-59 control of the House.

Third, the “generic” ballot indicates that Republicans are up over Democrats, much like on the national scene. The GOP is benefiting from solid support from its base and the favor of independents, even though Democrats make up 48 percent of registered voters in the state.

Overall, the state-level political scene is a lot like the national scene—and it’s only going to result in more gridlock leading up to 2012.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ideological Purity = Minority Status?

An interesting (but flawed) argument was made in Sunday's New York Times regarding purging Blue Dog Democrats out of the party to establish some kind of ideological purity, much like what the GOP is going through. For both sides, such domination by the far-side of the "coalition" of either the Democratic or Republican parties would only relegate either one to minority status, particularly in the U.S. House of Representatives.

With their D-Nominate scores, the noted political scientists Poole and Rosenthal create an ideological spectrum that ranks the most liberal to most conservative member of the U.S. House. Taking these rankings and using an independent analyst (such as Charlie Cook), one can identify those Democrats who are in most trouble in this year's mid-term election.

Here's what I found when I merged the two:

  • Taking the 40 most conservative Democratic seats in the U.S. House, 27 seats are listed as "Republican Lean" or "Democratic Toss-up" (the two most dangerous categories for Dems this year) meaning that seats like Heath Shuler, Larry Kissell, and John Spratt would be sacrificed...and move the Republicans twelve seats closer to majority party status.

  • If you took the "median" House Democrat (Bailey of the Iowa 1st), and looked at those seats to the left and those to right who are in trouble, only six Democrats who are "more liberal" are identified as in trouble. But to the "right" of the median Democrat, 63 Democrats are identified as being in trouble this election. If half of those 63 seats were lost (and imagine the "most conservative" Democrats lost to their Republican counterparts, which may happen this year), then you'd move the median Democrat more to the left--and move the Democratic Party into the minority in the U.S. House.

To expect pure ideological agreement in today's political environment is simply to invite minority status. If Democrats (and for that matter, Republicans as well) believe that only those who are "pure blood" in their ideological perspective are welcome into their party's coalition, then we'll have this "change" elections for the next many cycles. And the viciousness of electoral battles will only get more intense, particularly with the upcoming redistricting of congressional districts next year.

Do we really need more polarization in this nation? Be careful what ya ask for--you might just get it. Our governing and political system is intentionally designed to promote conflict--but it's also designed to enforce compromise, something few folks remember at this time in the game of politics. It's the middle ground where the battle lies in America's political landscape, and to sacrifice the middle means sacrificing a majority-party status.

Forget Election "Day"--It's Election "Month"

Election 2008 made those of us who teach campaigns & elections classes rewrite our entire lectures about early and absentee voting, especially here in North Carolina. The mass mobilization effort that the Obama campaign put together that year changed the Tar Heel state from a 13 point Republican state in 2004 to a solid purple competitive state (remember, Obama won North Carolina by only 0.4 percent) in 2008.

This shift from ruby-red to deep purple was due, in part, to the impact of early voting. Over 42 percent of all registered voters in North Carolina voted before Election Day in 2008, and over half of those who cast early ballots were registered Democrats, with registered Republicans making up only thirty percent of the early votes cast.

At the time and in my further analysis, I thought that this has changed the whole game of campaigning and electioneering in this state, and that if the rules of the game change, you need to change with them. Apparently the Republicans learned that lesson and are putting it to good use in 2010.

With their energized base, Republicans are taking advantage of early voting in significant ways, and especially targeting vulnerable Democrats. This year, all the convention wisdom is that Larry Kissell, the 8th Congressional District Democrat, has got a big-old bull’s eye painted on him. But there are two other congressional races that perhaps folks aren’t paying attention to, but the old gut feeling tells me, watch these:

11th Congressional District: Heath Shuler may have been a popular quarterback, but like Kissell, he’s one of the dangered Southern conservative Democrats running in the N.C. mountains. No matter his talk about running against Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Republicans see this as possible prime pickin’, and early voting in the 11th (as of October 18) seems to indicate that the GOP groundwar is in full force. The NC Civitas Institute is reporting daily analyses on early voting and shows that while Democrats have cast over 15,299 early votes, Republicans are nipping at Heath’s heels with 14,368 votes.

7th Congressional District: along with Shuler and Kissell, Mike McIntyre cast a “no” vote on the Health Care Reform Act; no surprise, since he comes from the conservative 7th District down east of Charlotte. But the surprise is that he may be in more trouble than others think, especially if early voting is an indication. The 7th is second, only to the 11th, in early votes cast, and it's a pretty dead-even race (13,592 Dems to 12,753 Reps having cast their ballots).

So why is early voting important? Well, according to exit polls, we know that if someone identifies with one of the two major parties, there’s a 90 percent change they will vote for that party’s candidates. And if nearly 13,000 registered Republican voters have already cast their ballots in the 17th, well, you do the math.

Looks like the Republicans may have learned their lesson from 2008—don’t wait until November 2nd, but bank those ballots early and often. This could be an early wave lapping at November 2, with the tidel wave yet to appear. If so, Kissell, Shuler, and McIntyre better grab some life jackets.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Rock + Hard Place = Larry Kissell

The following post can also be found at as part of my election analysis:

North Carolina can claim its own dog fight in this year’s political battles—and it’s called the 8th Congressional District. The fight between Democratic incumbent Larry Kissell and Republican Harold “Just Call Me ‘The Big Guy’” Johnson has all the trappings of one of the most competitive elections in the country.

What makes the 8th so cutthroat? There are some key factors that play into the apparent closeness:

First, it’s Nancy Pelosi. Yes, she the representative from San Fransisco, about as far as one can get from North Carolina’s 8th district. But it seems that she is running in every district where there is a Democratic incumbent, and Larry Kissell is tied—hook, line, sinker—by Johnson and the Republican Party.

Second, it’s about vulnerability, and first-term members of Congress are the most vulnerable. Granted, Kissell has sought to differentiate himself from the national party, and voting against the health care bill (which matched up with the opinion of his district) can help. But he stood with his party, and that party tie is helping the Republicans brand him a Pelosi-Democrat, which energizes Republicans and irritates independents. Kissell’s standing wasn’t helped when an underfunded primary challenger showed his potential weakness, with only 62 percent of Democrats supporting his renomination in the May primary.

Next, the demographics, especially voter registration and behavior. By the looks of it, Democrats in the 8th District shouldn’t have anything to fear—they are 49 percent of the registered voters, compared to Republicans with 27 percent and unaffiliated voters with 23 percent. But this year’s mobilization and energy levels among Republicans (reversing 2008’s Democratic advantage that gave Kissell his win) is giving some pause.

While this district is appears to favor the Democratic Party, in 2004 the district voted as North Carolina did, going for President Bush by 13 percent. Then, when the political winds turned against the GOP in 2006, the district nearly unseated the long-serving Republican incumbent Robin Hayes, who won by only 329 votes over newcomer Larry Kissell, in the congressional race.

Then came the 2008 Democratic mobilization campaign, lead by Obama’s efforts. The mobilization wave not only doubled the district’s votes cast in 2006, but it propelled Kissell in his rematch with Hayes to win by 11 percentage points. Now, the pendulum appears to be swinging back to a political newcomer against the incumbent.

Finally, it’s about the “mood” of the nation and, especially in NC, voters ain’t happy. And when voters ain’t happy, no politician should take anything for granted, especially those in competitive districts like the 8th.

If Kissell hangs on, it will be one of the key victories to keeping the Democrats in control of the US House of Representatives. If he looses, it’s a sign that conservative Democrats in the South need life support.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Will Heath Care Really Doom Kissell and Shuler?

There's a story in the Washington Post about the 55,000 member State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC) labor union taking their vengence out on U.S. Representatives Larry Kissell and Health Shuler, along with Mike McIntrye, by running candidates to the "left" in November's general election.

Putting aside the fact that the SEANC has to gain enough signatures to put their "new party" (North Carolina First) on the November ballot, they may have also missed some important polls in the 8th and 11th congressional districts that point to the fact that most constituents in those districts don't like the healthcare reform bill, and that Kissell and Shuler at least were voting their constituents' desires.

Looking at a poll from PPP in Raleigh from January, 52% of the voters in the 8th Congressional district were opposed to the Democratic health bill, with only 35% in favor. Granted, this was in January and the final vote was taken in March, but not much could have changed to make that big of a swing in support for the bill in this conservative district. Kissell's overall approval rating of 45% at that time was fairly good, along with 53% saying that they would vote for Kissell over "his Republican candidate," considering that the same poll found only 40% approved of the job Democrats were doing in Congress.

In a March poll, PPP found that in Health Shuler's district, 53% said they were opposed to the health care reform bill, with only 35% in favor. So if SEANC is so adament against Schuler and Kissell for voting the way their constituents want them to, how does SEANC think they will win an election in those districts? Which leads me to ask...

Will "NC First" be the "Tea Party" of the left? If so, they have some early lessons to learn. The key rule of American electoral politics is "first past the post"; meaning, that if you get one more vote than the person who came in second, you win (with or without a majority vote plus one). Both political parties seem to be suffering from the "you're not pure enough" syndrome, meaning that those on the wings of the party (Tea Party on the right, SEANC on the left) aren't happy when elected officials play to the middle (or worse, to their district's political leanings).

Of course, if the wings of the parties get their way, they will only create the "spoiler effect" of American parties: third-parties generally spoil the win for the candidate they are closest to politically/ideological, and help elect the person they don't want to win. Take, for example, Florida in 2000: not the "hanging chad" insanity, but the fact that Ralph Nader was on the ballot and took 90,000 votes that possibly could have gone to Al Gore. If Nader wasn't on the ballot, would we have had to deal with the Florida fiasco? Probably not, but the spoiler effect was alive and well.

So we have an electorate where the wings of both parties aren't happy, and the middle independents aren't happy--my question, is there ANYBODY out there happy in electoral-land? Well, besides us political junkies.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A Pox on Both of Your Parties

Let's face it--the American electorate is (to put it mildly) ticked off. National poll numbers are showing that the Democratic "majority-party" is out-of-favor with the electorate--but just as curiously, so is the Republican "minority-party." Why the "quotation marks" around "majority" and "minority"? Because we're not a "majority-party" nation, but a coalition country--but more on that later.

If one was a political analyst, one would think that the majority party's detriment is the minority party's gain--but not this year. Even in North Carolina, voters are expressing outrage at both parties--and it's incumbents that should be shakin' in their shoes right about now. With the filing deadline passed for the upcoming primary election (May 4), there are a slew of challengers facing off against incumbents. Typically, the safe bet is on the incumbent (name recognition, fundraising capabilities, strong organizational support)--but maybe not this year. It could be that both Democratic and Republican incumbents are the bulls eye of the American voter this year.

From a recent PPP survey of North Carolinians (788 respondents):

  • Democratic Party Favorables/Unfavorables: 38%/51%
  • Republican Party Favorables/Unfavorables: 32%/48%

So if you're a disgruntled voter, where ya gonna go?

Here's another question they asked: "Generally speaking when you vote this fall do you plan to support incumbents or vote for challengers?"
  • Incumbents: 13%
  • Challengers: 31%
  • Not sure: 56%

Yikes. While it may seem early in the election season, to have only 13% of the electorate express a desire to return their current officerholder to another term doesn't seem to bode well for those folks running for re-elect. In particular, "independents" in the survey had no warm and fuzzy feelings for either party:

Among independents:

  • Democratic Party favorability/unfavorability: 26%/55%
  • Republican Party favorability/unfavorability: 21%/52%

While Democrats were split (21/21) over whether they would favor an incumbent versus a challenger and Republicans favored a challenger (42%) to an incumbent (7%), independents said that they would favor a challenger (32%) over an incumbent (7%), with 61% still not sure what they will do. Not a good sign, I'd say, for those folks seeking to hold their seats. I doubt that many current officerholders will be using the "power of incumbency" this year and reminding folks that they are the ones already in this mess. Even those incumbents with many years service may be running as a "newbie" this fall, if they can make it past their primary challenge.

As to the coalition vs. majority-party nation, while it may seem to some that the wins for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 were a radical shift in party alignment in the nation according to exit polls, don't bet on it: while party identification in the 2008 election benefited the Democrats slightly to the detriment of the Republicans, the ideological identification of the nation didn't change any from 2004. Meaning, we're still the same ideological country as we were when we re-elected George W. Bush, but we're more willing to change our party labels than we are ideological labels. Two years of good runs may catch up with the Democrats this fall, but the old line in campaign politics is that "you can't beat someone with no one."