In every Presidential election year, one thing is predictable. We might not know who will win, or by how much, or even (until the Holy Sacred Oracles of Iowa dictate to us), who will be the nominees of the parties. But we do know that the national media will obsess over the Buckeye State. Every poll, development, candidate visit (and they will be daily), or other jot of news out of Ohio will be mentioned on every national newscast.
There is a good argument for this focus on Ohio. Despite losing ground in the last several decades, it’s still a fairly large state, with 20 electoral votes. And, after inexplicably preferring Nixon over Kennedy in 1960, it has since sided with the winner of every Presidential election. Its block of electoral votes would have elected Gore in 2000, or Kerry in 2004, had those Democrats carried the state.
Which leads me to ask - do we have a similar bellwether county or region of Alabama? After playing with the numbers awhile, it seems that we do. Looking at the county-level gubernatorial and downballot statewide returns in the partisan-competitive era (1986 onward), there is a band of coterminous counties in North Alabama that seem to be key to the electoral fortunes of both parties. This region includes the counties of Limestone, Morgan, Cullman, Marshall, and DeKalb. These are not small, insignificant counties. Taken together, they accounted for 8.6% of the statewide vote Siegelman received in 2002.
To see this at its clearest, let’s look at the two gubernatorial elections in which Don Siegelman was the Democratic nominee. These are his landslide win in 1998, and the After-Midnight-Recount “loss” of 2002. (If you never follow another link from this blog, read Dr. Gundlach’s compelling statistical evidence that the 2002 election was stolen from Siegelman by Baldwin County election officials, which is the link in the previous sentence.) In the Siegelman win, all five of these counties went Democratic. In 2002, Riley took all five. In these five counties, Siegelman pulled 8,395 fewer votes in 2002 than he did in 1998; this loss alone was greater than his statewide loss. At the same time, Riley’s 2002 total in these counties was 12,055 larger than James’s 1998 tally. Either of these swings made a larger difference than Riley’s 3,120 statewide “win.” Together, the Associated Press’s aborted call of Siegelman as the winner would have withstood Republican larceny in Baldwin County. Also, although Siegelman lost other counties between these two cycles, most of the losses (Mobile being the main exception) were in lesser-populated counties in the Wiregrass, and in East Central Alabama, in the district Riley had represented in Congress.
One salient point bears note. As Gundlach notes, there was a strong correlation between Siegelman’s votes at the county level between the 1998 and 2002 elections. That is, Siegelman tended to get about 85% of the votes in a given county in 2002 that he got in the same county in 1998. (The lone sore-thumb exception was hapless, corrupt Baldwin, where Siegelman’s total dropped to 69.7% of his 1998 vote; this is one of the statistical “smoking guns” of stolen votes.) In our five counties, Siegelman secured 87.2% of his 1998 total. This shows some mathematical evidence that these counties have the potential for Democratic overperformance. In any event, if a Democratic statewide nominee carries these five counties, as a matter of raw arithmetic, there are not that many other places a Republican nominee can go to make up the deficit.
What are the practical implications of all this, as we wind down the 2010 general election campaign? First and foremost, these counties provide a great opportunity for statewide candidates to focus various forms of campaigning in the closing weeks. As they are coterminous, a candidate can make numerous media or public appearances in several of them in one day. For the Democratic candidate who’s smart enough to tap the manpower resources of unions and students in Birmingham, Gadsden and Huntsville, and put street sheets into their hands, all are close enough for some serious canvassing. The tendency of these counties to swing in the direction of a statewide winner means they are a much better use of this manpower than more urban counties like Madison and Jefferson, where individual neighborhoods tend to have set voting patterns, and are resistant to persuasion efforts. For example, as a Democrat, a candidate is going to carry Ensley, and community-based efforts are likely to be more useful than canvassers for GOTV efforts such neighborhoods need. On the other side, a Democrat can canvass Vestavia until volunteers are dropping from starvation; the vote ceiling is still pretty low.
You can also make a strong argument for considering the swing nature of these five counties in allocating media buys in a statewide campaign. Except for that portion of Cullman County from the City of Cullman southward, that part of DeKalb nearest Chattanooga, and part of the southern extreme of Marshall, this region is all in the Huntsville television market. If you spend your TV dollars in Montgomery (as many campaigns do to excess, so that staffers and Goat Hill insiders will see them), your dollar is being spent to reach West Montgomery and Macon County (congenitally Democratic), and Elmore and Autauga Counties (doomed by cretin genetics to be Republican). You aren’t changing a lot of R’s to D’s, even with a million GRP’s. It’s just a bonus that Madison County has some areas, mostly in Randy Hinshaw’s and Butch Taylor’s House districts, that tend to swing between the parties, much more so than outlying areas of metro Birmingham or the Montgomery region. Unless a campaign has a strategic reason to focus its buy on a particular TV market with a locally targeted ad - say, like the Oil-Spill-Is-Republican-Deregulation’s-Fault spot I am still waiting on the ADP to unleash in Mobile - a shift of GRP’s to the Huntsville market makes sense.
Each of these counties (except Marshall, which has three bi-weeklies) has a daily newspaper. Several have news/talk radio stations. These opportunities make candidate facetime a worthwhile investment in the closing days of the campaign. Just remember, to have something quotable to say when you’re calling. “Lazy” and “crook” get quoted; “honored” doesn’t even generate a story.
Downballot candidates should pay this region mind for one final important reason: this year, our gubernatorial nominee is from there. DeKalb County should be having a much higher turnout because of the Sparks candidacy, and his presence on the ticket will be breaking up straight GOP ballots. Once those folks are loose, their votes elsewhere on the ticket may be up for grabs. There may be a similar effect of broken GOP straight tickets in neighboring Marshall County. Friends and neighbors voting is alive and well in Alabama.
So, Mr. or Ms. Candidate or Campaign Manager - head on up to the home of the broilerhouse and beat your Republican opponent in these closing weeks. Or if you’re just a volunteer looking for something to do, offer to take a vanload of canvassers from Birmingham up to Cullman or Albertville. (Don’t forget your street sheet so you’re not wasting time ringing doorbells of nonvoters!) Alabama’s “Little Ohio” will welcome you.