Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Déjà Vu All Over Again: Sparks Ascendant

“Déjà vu all over again.”

Of all of Yogi Berra’s assaults on the English language, none has entered common usage more than this one. Not only does it amuse with its classic Yogi structure, it captures a certain sensation better than many more erudite expressions.

The phrase generates over a quarter of a million Google hits. It has inspired television scripts, countless quotations, and even an album and song by John Fogerty:

It only seems appropriate to use it to describe the phenomenon we are witnessing in this final week of the gubernatorial contest. At this point before the May primary, anyone who was keeping up with events knew some sure bets. Bradley Byrne would lead the Republican ticket (he did), but would not have enough votes to win without a runoff (which he didn’t), so he would have to campaign another six weeks before being crowned as the GOP nominee and presumed governor-elect (the part of the Republican narrative which went terribly awry).

On the Democratic side, the safe bet was even safer. Smooth, debonair, educated, erudite Artur Davis would ride a tsunami of Obama-style black excitement, combined with a respectable portion of the white vote, to the Democratic nomination - whereupon he would probably be edged out after a respectable, “reform vs. reform” campaign, by Byrne. Rustic Ron Sparks, shackled with a community college education and running from the unglamorous base of the Department of Agriculture and Industries, was no match for a D.C. product who had shone at the 2008 Democratic Convention, giving Obama’s seconding speech.

As the internet meme puts it, “epic fail.”

Polls were repeatedly published in Davis-friendly media outlets such as The Birmingham News and the Mobile Press-Register, showing Davis with leads of 10% or more within a week or ten days of the primary. Despite that, when the smoke cleared election night, Sparks had trounced Davis by a 62.4%-37.6% margin. Basically, Sparks had done 20% or more better than the most recent pre-primary polls touted by the “mainstream media.”

I have spoken before about the unreliability of those polls. What is interesting is that, in publishing the recent polls showing Sparks rapidly closing the gap, the media have been close-lipped about the crosstabs on their polls. This is telling. My best educated guess is that the Bentley lead, such as it is, is based on an artificial polling result among black voters that gives him several percentage points among blacks that simply won’t be there on Election Day. For better or worse, black voters continue to rely much more heavily on party identification as a voting cue than do white voters. (I would, of course, say it’s better.) The result of this is that a Republican will benefit in polling results from random black respondents naming the Republican, when (if properly polled) would give responses betraying their Democratic intentions. To an extent, this explains the “surprise” showing by Siegelman in 2002, when media polls had essentially written him off.

Which is where we come to “déjà vu all over again.” Sparks is now as close to Bentley in those “media polls” as he was to Davis in late May, if not closer. More to the point, Bentley is finally beginning to show the strains of media scrutiny. Even the Newhouse outlets, which have endorsed him, have been reporting on his inability to produce a consistent and credible story about the extent of his ties with AEA in his runoff campaign against Byrne. The Republicans in Alabama have almost forsaken Pelosi-bashing as a campaign theme in favor of promises of “honest” government. This is in no small part due to the availability of Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney Leura Canary and her politically timed indictments of Democrats. The problem is, when you are trying to sell yourself as the non-political honest alternative, “credibility” is not the toe of your own on which you want to be stepping.

While Sparks has not had the advantage of the corporate money dump that Bentley is using, he has done a fairly brilliant job of playing the hand he has been dealt. He has done well in the Wiregrass with the bingo issue, and should run well ahead of the last few Democratic nominees in that area. As it is part of the GOP base, that is important. Sparks is also benefiting from one of the strongest African-American turnout efforts in recent gubernatorial history. Black totals may not equal those of the Obama campaign, but GOTV efforts are substantially more intense this round than they have been for any Democratic gubernatorial nominee in the last 20 years. I have been talking to astute observers across Alabama, and have not gotten any indication that any significant part of the black political community isn’t on board and full-speed-ahead at this point. The one place I would have liked to have seen Sparks doing better would have been with the BP issue in Mobile and Baldwin Counties. That, however, has been a tough issue to exploit. Sparks doesn’t have the corporate cash for a targeted local paid media push, and the Press-Register isn’t going to give him much of a free-media break on the issue by pointing the finger at Bush-era deregulation.

This is critical, because - and I do not mean to point fingers here, only accurately describe what happened - two razor-thin Democratic gubernatorial losses of recent years, 1994 and 2002, took place when certain key black political organizations or individuals weren’t fully exerting themselves. If you know what to look for on a spreadsheet, their inactivity sticks out like a sore thumb. And in both instances, the resulting lower black turnout was fatal to the Democratic nominee. Had those problems not arisen, we would likely have a current political narrative about “Democrats have won the last five governor’s races.”

Do you need further proof that there is no structural preference for Republicans in Alabama gubernatorial elections? Look at the aggregate votes from the last four gubernatorial general elections:


Remember, when looking at that, the GOP vote in 2006 was artificially boosted by Baxley’s unwillingness (and financial inability) to go negative on Riley, and Riley’s financial leveraging of his incumbency. (Which, being translated, means “Choctaw casinos.”) The Democratic landslide in the table, 1998, was against the power of incumbency. Correct for those factors, and this is a seriously Democratic number. I do not care if you are a political scientist whose reputation is based on the historic success of the football team up the street, saying there is a presumption of a Republican governor in any given year is bad political science.

All in all, it should be an interesting night a week from tonight. I think a lot of people, who have been getting their news from the Usual Suspects, are going to be as surprised as they were on the night of June 1. There is no need for Democrats to relent at this point, and, in fact, we’re close enough that the last little effort can put us first past the post. Look inside, and find it, people.

Or, once again to quote The Yogi, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”


  1. http://www.progressiveelectorate.com/diary/3120/obama-and-dems-surge-in-new-poll-gop-is-preparing-to-lose-and-scream-voter-fraud