Thursday, June 10, 2010

Unconventional (Gubernatorial) Wisdom

Well, here we are. A week and change after the 2010 Alabama primary, and the Conventional Wisdom is already raising its ugly head from the hole where the voters knocked it last week. The folks at CQ/Roll Call still call the Alabama gubernatorial race "Leans Republican," citing the "fact" that the GOP have won five of the last six gubernatorial races in Alabama. (Never mind the fact that they earlier reported that Bentley led the Republican primary and James and Byrne were parsing provisional ballots for the second spot - the linked version is corrected; read the comments.) A similar nod comes from The New York Times. Closer to home, while The Birmingham News has been unusually circumspect after its constant predictions of an Artur Davis nomination, give them time. Once the dust settles on the Republican recount, they will go after whoever faces Bradley Byrne, to warm up for assuring us that Ron Sparks is as doomed in the general election as he was in the primary.

But is the Conventional Wisdom as wise as it is conventional? As one of the few who told folks before last week, that Artur Davis wasn't going to get anywhere near the 40% of the white vote "polls" were giving him, and would lose a lot of black votes as well, I don't think so. There are many reasons to think so, and I will cover a few of them here.


Geography. Since 1966, the Governor's Mansion has been occupied by someone from
Birmingham northward a total of about five years. Folks in the Tennessee Valley are feeling abused and neglected, and what the pioneering scholar of modern Southern politics, V.O. Key, called the "friends and neighbors" vote will probably tilt more Sparks's way than it has for previous Democratic nominees Baxley and Siegelman. The big issue in Huntsville is BRAC growth, and in Gadsden it's replacing lost steel jobs. Voters in both towns are likely to feel more comfortable with a neighbor, than with someone from Mobile, Tuscaloosa or Greenville.

Loss of the GOP Base. Any electoral victory is something of a jigsaw puzzle, and the Republican picture is apt to have a few pieces missing this year. One that leaps to mind is Houston County, a mid-large county that has been a reliable part of the Republican base for years. However, Bob Riley has done a lot of damage to that brand with his one-man War on Bingo, which has thrown a lot of Wiregrass residents out of work. This will be an especially serious problem for the Riley-linked Byrne, if he emerges as the nominee. Another problem spot for Republicans comes in the Sand Mountain dyad of DeKalb and Marshall Counties. This is a particular problem for them in the "friends and neighbors" category discussed supra. These counties together account for over 3% of the statewide vote total, and between them gave Riley his margin of victory in 2002. They are not the most important part of a Republican winning game plan, but they have to be in it. And as Sparks is a DeKalb resident, look for these two counties to be in the D column in November, perhaps heavily.

In terms of geographic base, the most critical may be Baldwin County. A Republican statewide nominee who doesn't score a lopsided win in Baldwin is toast. It's a little early to determine what effect it will have, but you may have heard that there has been a small oil spill washing up on the beach down there. While the GOP will try to blame Obama
, and Republican voters are notoriously immune to objective facts, the Gulf oil disaster doesn't create a hospitable environment (pun intended) for the Republican small-government message of "drill, baby, drill!" If anyone doubts Ron Sparks's ability to pick up an issue and bludgeon an opponent with it, ask future ex-Congressman Davis about his health care reform votes. This issue should boost Sparks on both sides of Mobile Bay, whose two counties combine for 11.2% of the gubernatorial vote, and in which Riley got 56.8% of the vote in his 2002 squeaker. The boost to Sparks may be improved by the presence on the Republican ticket of "Big [Oil] Luther" Strange. For all the other handicaps Byrne brings to the Republican ticket, his Bay residency may be his one electability selling point in the runoff. But being part of a voting bloc doesn't mean you'll win it. Ask Artur Davis about how well he did in Dallas and Macon Counties in the primary.

One important non-geographical element of the Republican base that may call in sick is organized agriculture. ALFA, the Alabama Cattlemen's Association, the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, and the Alabama Forestry Association have been reliable Republican supporters and contributors in recent years. Sparks, however, has used his post as Agriculture Commissioner to good effect with these groups, and has been a tireless advocate for their interests. ALFA supported both his campaigns for Agriculture Commissioner. Even if they don't support him, it's hard seeing these groups pulling out all the stops against Sparks as they did, say, against Siegelman.

Energized Democratic Base. One major key to Sparks's primary landslide win was union support, and there's no reason to think that support will weaken in the general election. AEA is another player that will be looking for ways to help Sparks, especially if Byrne captures the Republican nomination. Look for Dr. Hubbert to emphasize to his rank and file - many of whom have strayed into the Republican fold - the pocketbook impact on classroom teachers of a Byrne governorship. Initial talk of a record Democratic street effort is promising, and both these groups could provide critical shoe leather for such an effort, as well as financial support.

With this much wind in his sails, is Sparks really sailing into that much of a Republican current? In other words, how much weight to give to the "five of the last six" mantra repeated by the Newhouse papers and their trained "experts" at the football mills, er, universities? Bear with me while we briefly look over the last six elections. 1986: moderate Republican win, but only because the Democrats mishandled the resolution of the primary dispute between Baxley and Graddick. 1990: moderate Republican win, but only because the investigation hadn't caught up with Guy Hunt yet. 1994: squeaker Republican win, but largely attributable to a national GOP trend that didn't run as deep in Alabama as elsewhere. 1998: Democratic landslide win. 2002: squeaker Democratic win, that had to be stolen in the "After Midnight" Baldwin County recount, despite GOP-led bogus prosecutions. 2006: moderate/big Republican win, but with an incumbent who wouldn't have enjoyed the benefits of incumbency without the 2002 larceny. Also, Lucy Baxley ran a characteristically sunny and pleasant campaign that didn't take advantage of Riley's emerging Abramoff/Choctaw casino links.

Give the Democratic nominees in these years the kind of breaks I outlined above for 2010, and they easily win the 1994 and 2002 elections. And without Riley, who would the Republicans have sent against Lucy Baxley, or an incumbent Siegelman (Folsom would not have been term-limited until 2002) in 2006? Troy King? One could only have hoped. In short, the Democrats haven't been that far from making it three-for-six or better. Republicans have benefited from, at best, a series of lucky breaks over the last quarter century of gubernatorial competition. That luck may be about to change. For now, it's time to pop some popcorn, and watch the 2010 Republican nominee - whoever that turns out to be - spend money and bleed for the next five weeks.

Breaking development - Friday June 11 - The reticence of The Birmingham News is over. In an article today, they proclaim that an "independent" poll "finds both Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley leading Sparks by comfortable margins." The "independent" poll it cites is a Rasmussen product. What do the experts say about the fairness and impartiality of Rasmussen polling? A fair sample is this quote from an article on politico.com:

“[Rasmussen] polls less favorably for Democrats, and that’s why he’s become a lightning rod,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political scientist who studies polling. “It’s clear that his results are typically more Republican than the other person’s results.”

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