Thursday, October 13, 2011

Turning the Paige on the Republican Majority

If you take any randomly-selected group of 140 adults, who have to be at least 21 years old, a quarter of whom have to be over 25, and most of whom in practice are much older; at some point during any quadrennium, one or two of them are going to pass on to meet their Maker. It doesn’t take an actuary to know that.

In the current Legislature, such has already been the case with the late Rep. Owen Drake, R-Leeds. It is difficult to speak ill of the dead (or at least it will be until “Choctaw Bob” Riley dies), but in the case of Rep. Drake it’s easier to say nice things than it would be in the case of most Republicans. Rep. Drake was a specimen of that very rare creature in the Alabama GOP: an independent-thinking moderate who didn’t trip on his own feet to fall in line when King Pig Speaker blew his toy train whistle. While the cancer that eventually claimed Drake’s life kept him from much of the 2011 session, his was one of the few voices that could be heard in the new Republican majority calling for less draconian attacks on the rights of teachers and other public employees.

Which is one reason he was so darn hard to beat. Drake won the 2010 election by a 61.5%-38.5% margin over Democrat Charlene Cannon, a retired Birmingham Police captain.

House District 45, in Jefferson County and a tiny sliver of St. Clair, is an odd district. It takes in areas as diverse as minority neighborhoods in Huffman, white working class neighborhoods in Leeds, and the designer-label boutiques and cafés of Crestline Village in Mountain Brook.

Tuesday, the Republican runoff for the special election to fill Drake’s vacancy was won by his brother Dickie, who defeated Irondale Mayor Tommy Joe Alexander, by 1,110-965. Those numbers give us a first clue why the Democratic nominee, Leeds businesswoman Paige Parnell, has a good shot at making this a takeaway from the Republican Party. The general election for the seat will be Tuesday, November 29.

To get the best perspective on Parnell’s chances, the best place to start is Owen Drake’s win over Captain Cannon in 2010. Broken down by precinct, and ordered in ascending Democratic percentage, those results are:

PrecinctLocationCannon (D)Drake (R)D%R%
St ClairMoody Civic Center1611612.1%87.9%
4502Cherokee Bend Elementary1571,08912.6%87.4%
St ClairCedar Grove Baptist Church8757213.2%86.8%
4509Leeds First Methodist Church3121,88514.2%85.8%
4510Sulpher Springs Baptist Church2311017.3%82.7%
4501McElwain Baptist Church17978318.6%81.4%
4508Leeds Civic Center42661441.0%59.0%
4504Birmigham Fire Station 3110715041.6%58.4%
4506Brewster Rd Baptist Church1,11389455.5%44.5%
4503Irondale Senior Building1,20887258.1%41.9%
4505Huffman Middle School86160958.6%41.4%
4507First Methodist Center Point57232863.6%36.4%

St. Clair Absentee0100.0%100.0%

Jefferson Absentee4012724.0%76.0%



A handful of things about these numbers jumps right out at the knowledgeable observer. The first thing is, that 57.5% of Owen Drake’s 2010 margin came from the two Leeds precincts. Over sixty years ago, Harvard political scientist V.O. Key noted in his classic Southern Politics in State and Nation that “Friends and Neighbors” voting is particularly strong in the South, and decades of analysis of results have not weakened the consensus supporting that conclusion.

Unlike November 2010, when the Democratic nominee was from a Huffman precinct at the other end of the district, that any Democrat would have taken, our nominee this time is not only a lifelong Leodensian, but she is a local heroine who came within a gnat’s eyelash of putting the town on the map as the Hometown of Miss America. Only one person could rival her as a Leeds hero, and he ain’t running. (Though he is a Democrat!) Dickie Drake will probably get a few sympathy votes for his brother’s death, but anyone who says Parnell isn’t going to rip a huge hole in that irreplaceable 77.2% of the vote Owen Drake got in the two Leeds precincts isn’t being realistic. And if those precincts had split 50-50 in 2010, Owen Drake’s comfortable 2010 win would have become a very respectable 54.9%-45.1% Democratic loss to an incumbent.

Not only is it almost mathematically certain that Parnell will lay waste to the GOP numbers in Leeds, she is doubtless going to greatly reduce the Republican margin in the district’s other Republican stronghold, the Cherokee Bend precinct in Mountain Brook. If for no other reason, there is the ineluctable bogeyman of Alabama politics: race. While Captain Cannon was a distinguished law enforcement officer, whose career indicates she would have been a wonderful Representative, her candidacy ran up against the unavoidable difficulty of getting Mountain Brookers to vote for an African-American candidate. However, if you raise the 2010 Democratic vote at Cherokee Bend to a mere 30% (closer to what most white Democrats got in that precinct; Jim Folsom got 35.8% there), in addition to the Leeds hypothetical shift, the race becomes a 52.8%-47.2% squeaker, considering Owen Drake’s incumbency. Of course, if you apply this white vote shift to the remaining precincts in the district, it becomes a likely Democratic win. The outcome of the GOP runoff reinforces this. Dickie Drake’s win, while giving the Republicans a shot at splitting Leeds, deprives them of the “Friends and Neighbors” vote Alexander would have gotten in Irondale. Finally, all of this number crunching has to be done with due regard for the 2010 electorate. As I have noted elsewhere, there is extremely strong statistical evidence of a surge in white (conservative) turnout in 2010. Owen Drake doubtless was a substantial beneficiary of that. These protest-type voters, though, are going to be low-engagement voters. They had not been voting regularly before 2010, and they are the sort of voters who are exceptionally unlikely to show up in a special.

This is, of course, a special election. As such, it is subject to the old political adage that “anything can happen in a special.” But recent history in Alabama shows that Democrats, not Republicans, have done far better in legislative special elections. Even though both fell victim to the 2010 GOP tsunami, the Rev. James Fields won his seat in the 2009 special in District 12, and Butch Taylor retained the District 22 seat of the late Albert Hall for the Democrats in his 2007 special. The special election environment, with its low turnout, seems to favor Democrats and our benefit from committed turnout by teachers and other key constituencies.

Then you have to account for Paige Parnell. She is nothing less than the Democrats’ answer to the call to Central Casting for the perfect candidate. A moderate, Baptist businesswoman. A candidate who combines the eloquence of a law degree without being subject to the potential negative of being a “trial lawyer.” Finally, there is the Miss America thing. Even if you have never met Paige Parnell, you have to understand that you don’t make it to being the First Runner Up to Miss America without having the kind of poise, charm, and personality that can walk into a room full of strangers and leave everyone there wanting to know what they can do to please and help you. And a stranger to this district, she is not. Parnell is campaigning for this seat like a woman on a mission, and those intangibles are going to be impossible for Dickie Drake to match. So far as I can tell, she is also campaigning intelligently, and the revamped state Party effort to mount an effective field operation has been thrown behind her with a vengeance.

How important is Parnell’s campaign to the Alabama Democratic Party? Right now, the Alabama House has a 64-40 GOP majority. A Parnell win makes that 64-41. That brings Democrats within a couple of seats of being able to block a cloture vote - in other words, to being able to mount an effective filibuster against further Republican efforts to attack both the Democratic Party, and the workers, teachers, police and fire personnel, and other vulnerable constituents we represent. Does anyone doubt the GOP will try more shenanigans in the Legislature in 2012, and that we need this filibuster ability to stop them? An historical perspective: Democratic Houses of Representatives had not invoked cloture to stop a GOP filibuster since 1984. In the 2011 session alone, Republicans invoked cloture 84 times, not to kill Democratic filibusters, but merely to block debate or votes on Democratic amendments. Imagine being able to kill the next HB56.

According to House Democratic Leader Craig Ford, at least two Republicans, in addition to the already-switched Daniel Boman of Sulligent, have indicated that they are willing to switch if Parnell wins, because her win and their switches would bring Democrats within the magic number needed to block cloture votes.

Do I have your attention yet? Good, because it’s time to do everything we can to help Paige Parnell win this election. Consider this the most likely, and most important, “call to action” you’ll see on this blog before next fall. How can we help? First and foremost, the Parnell campaign needs boots on the ground to knock on doors and do the thousand other things a winning campaign has to do. You can contact the Parnell campaign coordinator, Lori Lindsay, at 334.549.5580. You can email Parnell at You can sign up to volunteer on her website at this page. You can make a donation of $25, $100, or whatever you can afford on this page. Be sure to Friend Parnell on Facebook here. Whatever you do, don’t sit there and wish on November 30 that you’d just done something. The Republicans know everything I have stated here about how important this race is, and we can’t count on them not to act accordingly.

This is a fight, and we have a fighter to get behind. And I have a message for the Republicans: this ain’t going to be a scholarship program preliminary.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Turn Out the Voters, or Turn Out the Lights

There are basically two ways to improve the electoral performance of a party - in other words, to win an election. The first of these is to persuade voters to vote for your party. The second is to persuade more of the voters who are already persuaded to vote for your party, but who would not vote without the extra prod of some “turnout” effort, to show up and vote. This much, you don’t have to read this blog to know. For some time, the strategy of the Alabama Democratic Party has been centered on the former. Efforts to do the latter have historically been limited to localized efforts in the African-American community.

The typical Democratic campaign of recent years has consisted of collecting large sums of money from a small handful of groups: AEA, the plaintiff’s bar (i.e., “trial lawyers”), that part of the gaming industry that prefers creating jobs in Alabama to creating jobs in Mississippi, and to a lesser extent organized labor. This money was then spent - not always effectively - mostly on television ads for individual candidates. While we did do some effective negative campaigning, which has been shown to be effective by both professional experience and academic studies, most of our negative was focused on individual Republican candidates. In the meantime, our better-financed opposition added a generous dose of “party negative” to their mix, painting every Democrat as an abortion-supporting, gay-loving, God-hating, gun-seizing acolyte of the conservative bete noir of the cycle. This was, of course, reinforced by channels other than paid media, such as talk radio and thousands of “apolitical” pulpits and “Christian voter guides.” Whatever its merits (and I have written elsewhere about the need for party-based positive and negative media), this has clearly been a persuasion-oriented strategy.

Beginning in the 1990’s, and culminating in the 2010 loss of the Legislature and every statewide race, this strategy became less and less effective. Not only has the strategy been shown to be ineffective, it is becoming increasingly impossible to maintain. The Legislature has shown that it is determined to frustrate AEA’s constitutional right to collective political action by any means necessary, and we can no longer count on their historical level of financial support. The plaintiff’s bar has been victimized by a decade of Republican Supreme Court control. When the Alabama Supreme Court says it’s OK for a corporation to make a deadly product without paying damages, or for a bank to lie about its loans and investments, those lawyers don’t collect judgments. From those judgments come their fees, and from those fees their historic support. To the extent these lawyers have tried to hedge their bets by contributing to Republicans, they have been rewarded with ... more “tort reform.” As to the gaming industry, we all know what’s happened there.

This is the point at which we have to ask ourselves whether we Alabama Democrats have a turnout problem that has contributed to our electoral reversals. There are several ways to answer this question. “Yes.” “Si.” “Ja.” “Oui.” “Да.”

In my last post, I looked at some of the margins in the 2010 Alabama House races. Here, I want to shift perspective to the total vote turnout in each of the 105 districts, and compared it to the Republican percentage of the vote in each district. The results are reflected in this chart:

This chart shows a compelling correlation between the total number of votes cast, and the percentage of the vote taken by the Republican candidate. The two trendlines representing the figures for the contested races stand, taken together, at almost a perfect-correlation 45º angle.

Keep in mind, this chart is showing total vote, not percentage of registered or eligible voters voting, on the Y axis. Varying rates of voter registration, or shifts in population between the 2000 Census on which the 2010 districts were based, could produce a slightly different result. However, low registration rates are just as indicative of an organizational problem as low turnout rates. As to possible effects of demographic shifts, while final 2010 Census results aren’t out, it seems evident so far that Alabama didn’t experience the intensive growth in white suburban areas, and depopulation of black counties and neighborhoods, that it did in each of the preceding three decades. Total vote, in roughly equal-population districts, is a workable rough metric of turnout. A correlation this strong isn’t going to be significantly altered by accounting for these variables, and the operational consequences of the numbers reflected are still significant.

Clearly, we could have won several close House races by boosting turnout: identifying likely Democratic voters, and giving them whatever encouragement and assistance was necessary to get them to the polls. Focused turnout efforts work. Could we have retained control of the House (and presumably the Senate)? That would have been a tall order in 2010’s atmosphere, but we clearly could have held enough seats to deprive the Republicans of their filibuster-proof present majorities. This alone would have made an upgrade in the turnout game worthwhile.

More troubling is a set of numbers, represented on this chart by the vertical arrays of red and blue dots at the 100% and 0% GOP votes, respectively, on the X axis. These represent the 30 districts in which the Republican nominees were unopposed, and the 29 districts in which Democratic nominees were unopposed. The quickest use of the Mark I Eyeball statistical analyzer will show that there were more votes cast for unopposed Republicans than for unopposed Democrats. A lot more. Specifically, the 30 unopposed Republicans got a total of 389,012 votes, an average of 12,970; while the 29 unopposed Democrats trailed with 263,232, an average of 9,077.

Why should this trouble us? After all, we weren’t going to win many of those House seats anyway, right? The problem is, these numbers, both in the Democratic and Republican districts, probably almost entirely reflect straight party voting. While this would require detailed analysis of precinct-level results in those limited counties whose machines separately report straight ticket votes for verification, common sense tells us this is so. It’s a little difficult (though well worth the trouble) to vote. Almost no one is going to go to that trouble just to vote for their cousin/neighbor/deacon, the Representative, and not bother with the rest of the ballot. This is particularly true in the case where that Representative is unopposed - why bother? For decades, knowledgeable political observers have zeroed in on uncontested races as a rough measure of straight-ticket voting.

Given this, these numbers have significance both above and below the Legislature on the ballot. They reflect a serious shortcoming on the part of the Party in identifying and turning out Democratic voters. How serious? If each of the unopposed Democratic House members had averaged the same 12,970 votes as the unopposed Republicans, unopposed Democrats would have received, in the aggregate, 112,987 more votes, the vast majority of whom would have been straight ticket Democratic votes. For those with short memories, Jim Folsom, Jr., only lost his re-election bid for Lt. Governor by 46,009 votes. I am willing to wager that at least some local races were lost in these underperforming districts.

I also want to make one thing clear: I am not pointing out the Democratic Representatives in whose districts these shortcomings happened. While I do know one or two of them whose contribution to the Party effort leaves something to be desired, by and large voter identification and GOTV is a Party function, not that of an individual candidate. I am merely using House districts as a convenient and useful metric. The shortfalls were also noticeable in those districts with contested races. On a related note, I am not one of those Democrats who try to complain that the reason for our defeat was that “the blacks didn’t get their vote out.” In fact, of the 29 unopposed Democrats, six were white candidates in white-majority districts, and five of those six were in the lower half of the unopposed Democrats, in total votes received.

Fortunately, this is one area where the Alabama Democratic Party is on the ball. Under the leadership of Judge Kennedy, and Executive Director Bradley Davidson, the Party has undertaken a major voter identification project. This effort seeks to reach most voters before the 2012 election, and virtually all voters before 2014, to identify the partisan leanings (or independence) of each voter. The Party will then be in a position to target GOTV efforts on Democratic voters, and improve the dismal turnout statistics reflected in the above table. (We will also be able to target undecided voters with persuasive messaging!) This is something the Alabama Republican Party has been doing for nearly a decade now, in a very intense, well-funded and organized effort, and the past disparity in these efforts goes a long way toward explaining the results in 2012. For those who want to get involved, the Party website has a page devoted to the training sessions being offered. If you never get involved in another Democratic campaign effort, this is the one to join. It is going to change the face of Alabama politics, and for the better.

As long ago as the proto-democratic Athenian constitution of Draco (c. 650 B.C.E.), citizens were fined for failing to appear at the sessions of the Assembly to vote. A number of modern democracies follow the same practice. The United States does not, and should not, follow this practice. But voter apathy is a problem, and it’s particularly a problem when the Republicans are doing more about it than Democrats.