Friday, July 16, 2010

Autopsy Report - The Career of Bradley Byrne

Truthfully? This one was over when Baldwin County reported its results, and favorite son Bradley Byrne had only 51.9% of the vote there. (Only a nominal improvement over his 46.9% there in the primary.) When neighboring Mobile only gave him 51.3%, the champagne corks started popping at the Bentley victory party at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The final chapter in one of the most implausible nomination stories in recent decades may take awhile to sort out, but the unofficial returns offer enough information to make some early conclusions. Let's go to the map to look at how the GOP gubernatorial runoff played out geographically, with the map of the June 1 primary below it for comparison purposes. The first thing that sticks out is that Bentley's strongest vote in the runoff came from those counties where he led the ticket in the first primary, including a whopping 86.1% in Tuscaloosa. Byrne's support, likewise, was strongest in those areas where he led the ticket in the first round. As I noted in analyzing those results before, the fingerprints of the GOP establishment are visible even on this simple a graphic rendition. Byrne's largest area of support, geographically, came from the establishment's base along I-85, including the home turf of Boss Mike Hubbard in Auburn. Byrne's support in the more historically Republican I-65 corridor faded a bit in the runoff, as he made only slight gains in Mobile and Baldwin Counties, and saw Bentley pass him in the critical GOP bastions of Autauga and Shelby Counties. Byrne's weak increases in his share of the total were also reflected in those counties carried by James and Moore in the first primary, most of which went to Bentley in the runoff.

There are two principal models for how Bentley won out there in the chattering classes and on the coffee circuit. The first posits that Bentley has greater appeal to moderates and independents, and that their greater role in the runoff electorate was decisive. The second posits that Bentley primarily won by getting James and Moore voters to switch to him in the runoff. The comparison of the two maps makes this look plausible, but there are more precise ways to test from currently available data.

First, let's compare turnout (expressed as a percentage of all registered voters casting votes) in the GOP runoff, with the percentage of the county vote obtained by Bentley:

This is almost a perfect shotgun-spread pattern, reflecting virtually no correlation. This is reflected by the computer-generated trendline, which is not quite parallel to the X axis, but close. The received wisdom in this race was that GOP insiders and regulars favored Byrne, and that larger turnout, which made them a smaller share of the voting pool, would benefit Bentley. To test this a little further, let's look at the correlation of the increase/decrease in turnout, with the increase in Bentley's share of the vote. (As expected, Bentley did not lose vote share in any county.)

As the descending trendline indicates, there was actually a tendency for Bentley's increase in vote share to be less in those counties where the turnout increased. What this all seems to indicate is that increasing the universe of voters in the runoff, at the county level, clearly gave Bentley no advantage, and arguably hurt him. This seems to weigh heavily against the idea that Bentley's showing came from reaching out to independents (or Democrats) whose presence would have pushed turnout upward in a given county.

One near-corollary of the "larger voter universe" theory was that Democrats, particularly those inspired by AEA, would skew the race in Bentley's favor, and any number of pundits and blog commentors, on both sides of the AEA fence, have stated this as a self-evident decisive fact. Do the numbers bear this out? Not really. Let's take a look at Bentley's take in a few select counties.

CountyBentleyBentley %ByrneByrne %

Some of these counties have heavily black populations. All share, in common, a strong Democratic voting history. If a Democratic/AEA "sneak attack" were going to show up anywhere, it would be in those counties where organized GOTV mechanisms of the ADC and New South Coalition are in place, especially in light of the interlocking leadership of AEA and the ADC. But we simply don't see that in the above table. Neither, though this would be less probative due to other variables, do we see it in the more racially balanced counties in the table. Note also the extremely low overall vote in Macon County, which would not be that low if the invasion had materialized.

This is not to say that AEA did not have a tremendous, even decisive, impact. It did. But the data don't support a conclusion that it was effected by flooding the GOP polling places with members. Rather, the AEA impact came in its massive spending - at least $1,500,000.00, and probably much more when all the reports are in - on ads blasting Byrne.

Most negative paid media is primarily intended to persuade voters who are expected to vote. (Though there is some data showing it has a beneficial effect to the employer, in depressing the target's turnout, or in increasing the user's turnout.) The ads rolled out by AEA-backed PACs were certainly of the persuasive variety. Typical, and best-known of the bunch, was the famous "windvane" ad that accused Byrne of believing in evolution, and being uncertain about whether every word of the Bible is literally true:

What kind of effect did this have? Let's go back to the numbers. Specifically, let's look at Bentley's share of the vote in the runoff, as correlated with two data sets: the percentage of James's vote in the June 1 primary, and Moore's vote on the same day:

Hopefully, the computer-generated trendlines help make this data a little more clear. What we see here is a reasonably strong correlation between Moore's share of the primary vote and Bentley's share of the runoff pie. Perhaps a little surprisingly, we see a negative correlation between the James vote and the Bentley runoff tallies. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, most observers reckoned that James voters, angry about the slugfest they'd endured with Byrne in the primary, would trend toward Bentley. However, as the recount process initiated by James moved forward, reports began to emerge of friction between James and Bentley supporters as they tussled over the second runoff spot. Perhaps this bad blood spilled over into the runoff results. Another relevant factor is the diversity of the counties in which James led in the primary. A look at the June 1 map above will recall that his counties were well spread across the state. Many were in or near the Black Belt, are sparsely populated, and have GOP primaries that are even more sparsely attended. Some were more substantial, such as Lauderdale County, where Bentley did well with 56.1%. While the correlation is pretty solid, this diversity of location and size may overstate the significance of the negative correlation if one is not careful.

Yet it is with the Moore primary voters that the AEA media buy probably had its greatest effect. At the risk of oversimplifying, a Moore voter will go out of her way to tell you that evolution is rubbish, and the Bible is literally true. A James voter would say the same thing, but would probably need to be asked. The James voter would be much more likely to take a sip of his post-lawnmowing cold beer while answering your question; the Moore voter has an existential crisis on realizing there was a splash of rum in the Christmas fruitcake. The ads' focus on Byrne's Episcopalian lapses from Alabama orthodoxy would have resonated much more with Moore than with James voters. (Though there were doubtless a few of that sort in the James camp.) No one doubts the savvy of AEA's political shop, and this exact effect was probably no accident. Indeed, it was very likely the result of one of Dr. Johnson's carefully crafted message-testing polls.

This is a Democratic blog, and I have so far spent this entire post in the dismal universe of Republican swampland. Emerging, like Dante on Easter morning, to the brighter light of things Democratic, let's take a minute to think about what this all means about the prospects of our next Governor, Ron Sparks. It is not by accident that I refer to him as "next Governor" after all of these statistical meanderings. Because if I see anything from all this deconstruction of the Republican runoff tallies, it is that we do have a clear path to victory this November. The official GOP Party Line, as was emerging on the pages of The Birmingham News before Bradley Byrne's political body was cold, is that Bentley is a moderate, folksy character who can reach across party lines, dooming the Democrats to another gubernatorial defeat. What I hope you have seen, gentle reader, is that Bentley's runoff win came from a rearrangement of the same old furniture within the Republican house. It's a rearrangement that leaves many disenchanted James (and a few Byrne) supporters, especially of the less religious-fanatic variety, open to a Democratic message of regulated, taxed gaming as an alternative to higher taxes. More important, for all the GOP spin about buzz and excitement in their runoff, turnout in that non-event fell from the 19.0% of the primary, to a paltry 15.9% in the runoff. Even in Bentley's native Tuscaloosa County, with all the excitement generated by his showing in the primary, and the political viability conferred by it, turnout only rose from 16.2% in the primary to 19.0% in the runoff, and his gross vote increased by a mere 6,632 - not a lot for one's "hometown urban base" at the height of one's buzz. Thus, the Republican hard core who voted Tuesday are far outnumbered by the Democratic base and independents who didn't join that runoff. And therein lies the way to Democratic victory.


  1. Great post! Well said.

    Do you have any numbers on the Sewell/Smoot race?
    I suspect Jefferson County republicans crossed over and voted for Sewell as payback for Davis.

  2. I haven't looked at it yet. I don't know if I can handle looking at another spreadsheet until after the weekend. But thanks for the comment!

    Incidentally, you will notice how the numbers don't back up Artur's praise of Bentley, as dutifully reported in the Mobile Press-Register, that Bentley won by pulling independents into the GOP runoff. The Newhouse papers are losing all shame. The man (Bentley) who was going to turn Alabama over to Lord Satan Hubbert last Monday, is our only hope today.

  3. Interesting. And it doesn't agree with what Artur and the News have been saying.

  4. It will still be up to the Dems to get their base AND the D-leaning independents to the polls.

  5. Dear Mr. IX,

    In taking a closer look at your profile picture, it appears to be Winston Churchill. Do I take it from your choice of picture that you condone party switching? Twice, if memory serves.


  6. @Gaelic:

    I am a Left-Straussian. It's your job to tease out the multiple meanings. And please try to do so without revealing you were taking notes whilst the guide on your recent travel was speaking. ☺