Sunday, August 16, 2009

Are You Ready For The Country?

Two weeks ago, a vigorous debate erupted in the Progressive blogosphere in Virginia over Creigh Deeds’ rural strategy. The debate was never resolved, but petered out as the campaign and bloggers involved in it moved on to other issues.

The debate began Aug. 2, when Miles Grant, in a post entitled “Deeds Doubles Down on Rural Roots,” slammed the “Deeds Country” tour, appearing to argue that Creigh needed to spend all his time nailing down his Democratic base in Virginia’s urban, suburban and exurban areas, and not mess around for 10 days in Southside and Southwest Virginia. In Miles’ view, Creigh needed to spend all his time trying to get a dispirited base more excited.

There was polling to support this view. More specifically, PPP polls and SUSA polls, showing Bob McDonnell with a double-digit lead over Creigh, described an enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats that was evident in each polls composition of likely votes, both skewed heavily toward the GOP. (Even as I write this, a new Washington Post poll ominously suggests Creigh has a great deal of work to do to nail down his base). Further, as the news of the disruption of town halls across the nation rode the crest of the cable news wave, Conservatives took heart that if they couldn’t win elections, at least they could temporarily shout down the opposition. Woohoo!

Meanwhile, Creigh’s campaign seemed off the rails. It wasn’t clear who was in charge, the candidate was mostly invisible, bloggers were being shunted aside and there was no clear message. And now that the post-primary unity love-fest had a chance to wane, some Progressive bloggers began to give voice to the fact that Creigh was significantly more moderate than many of them; they were anti-McDonnell, for sure, and would obviously vote for Creigh, but enthusiasm among this particular group of activists for Creigh was not high.

It was into this environment that the Deeds Country video and tour rode. Not only did the tactic fail to address any of the problems described, above, in the context of all these issues it seemed like a political non sequitur. The homespun video added to the concern. Was Deeds Country a sincere and effective entreaty to rural voters, or simply laughable campaign kitsch, poorly-timed and off the mark that confirmed the Deeds camp was in disarray?

To be sure, this was an instance where the mocking commentary of NotLarrySabato captured the zeitgeist perfectly, at least among NoVA bloggers, with the classic tweet, "Can someone please tell @CreighDeeds he is running for Governor of an urban/suburban state- not Sheriff of Mayberry."

Other bloggers, especially those from the rural parts of the state, took issue with the criticism, arguing that the tour was necessary and a success. Their message was clear: not everything revolves around Northern Virginia.

As for me, I really wasn’t sure what to think.

At that point, Lowell at Blue Virginia weighed in with an analysis that looked at the strategy of going after the rural vote, as opposed to the specific tactic of Deeds Country, as Miles had done. Lowell noted that both Kaine and Webb won their races by focusing on the “Urban Crescent,” that swath of the state beginning in the exurbs of Loudoun County and curving down the 95 corridor to Richmond, as opposed to Southside and Southwest Virginia.

Lowell also noted that Mark Warner used a rural-centric strategy effectively in 2001, so it was a viable path to a Democratic victory.

In the end, however, Lowell concluded:
Perhaps Mark Warner is sui generis in Virginia politics, and perhaps it had to do with money (Warner outspent Earley more than 2:1 in the general election), but it's nonetheless impressive for a guy from Alexandria City.

This year, we've got a candidate from western/rural Virginia, which means he should have a natural competitive advantage in that part of Virginia. If not, he's probably toast anyway. If so, then what Deeds has got to do is focus his efforts heavily on the "urban crescent" strategy that worked for Jim Webb, Tim Kaine, and to an extent Mark Warner (we haven't even discussed Barack Obama, who won huge in the "urban crescent"). In short, that means a Deeds campaign focus on: a) African Americans; b) NOVA; and c) Hampton Roads (not necessarily in that order). If Deeds can hold his own in rural Virginia and rack up large margins in the "urban crescent," he wins big.

Well, with the two most widely read websites in the Virginia blogosphere leveling such pointed critiques at the Deeds’ campaign, it wasn’t long before the story found its way into the mainstream media. On Aug. 6, the Washington Post wrote about it. The debate over tactics and strategy even drew the following comment from Creigh himself: "There are some bloggers who think that because I'm from rural Virginia, I can take for granted some bloc of Virginians. Does that mean that Northern Virginia is any less important? Absolutely not. That's where the election will be won or lost."

In the meantime, I interviewed Creigh as he kicked off Deeds Country (the timing was sort of coincidental). I asked him whether he thought it would be a base election or a fight for independents, and if the latter, where those voters would come from. He answered:
I don’t know if I think about it that way. You’ve got to drive your base out, but it’s going to be decided by independents. If we drive out the Democratic base, we’re still going to need a few votes.


A lot of them are in rural Virginia. A lot of them are the voters we want to reach out too [with the Deeds Country tour]. But there are independent voters all over the place.

Data suggests that, as Creigh said, a lot of those independent voters are, in fact, located in the rural areas -- areas that are generally GOP strong holds. Based on a review of historical voting numbers, I would describe these voters as not beholden to any particular political ideology – they tend to be “live-and-let-live” types of folks – but voters who are looking for a rural, traditional, religiously focused cultural sensibility with which they are comfortable. See Steve Jarding and Mudcat Saunders “Foxes in the Henhouse”.

These historical voting patterns suggest that the Democratic candidate that can speak to these voters has the reasonable potential to win roughly three times as many extra votes in the Commonwealth’s rural Republican stronghold districts (compared to the average performance of Democrats in those areas) as he does in the Democratic strongholds.

In other words, Creigh has more to gain from minimizing traditional Democratic weakness in rural areas than he does from maximizing traditional Democratic strength in urban and suburban ones.

To show why, I looked at the past five, competitive, non-federal elections for statewide office in 2001 and 2005 (I excluded the 2001 AG election as a total outlier). Democrats, of course, won three of those elections (2001 Gov., 2001 LG, 2005 Gov.) and lost two (2005 LG, 2005 AG), with one loss (2005 AG) effectively being a tie.

To evaluate the potential effect of Democratic strength in the Democratic stronghold districts roughly comprising the “Urban Crescent” -- the 3rd, 8th and 11th – I looked at the margin of victory in each race, and then calculated that number as a percentage of total votes cast in each race(TVC).
- 2001 Gov. – Warner: + 118,000 (26 % of TVC)
- 2001 Lt. Gov. – Kaine: + 112,000 (25 % of TVC)
- 2005 Gov. – Kaine: +162,000 (33 % of TVC)
- 2005 Lt. Gov – Byrne: + 136,000 (27 % of TVC)
- 2005 AG – Deeds: +123,000 (25 % of TVC)

The average of all five races was 27.2%, with a standard deviation of 3.4, suggesting that Creigh’s margin of victory in the 3rd, 8th and 11th will arguably range from 23.9% to 30.5%.

I followed the same procedure to evaluate the potential of Democratic strength in the top Republican strongholds, looking at Democratic margins of losses in the 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th
For the same elections:
- 2001 Gov. – Warner: -11,000 (1.5% of TVC)
- 2001 Lt. Gov. – Kaine: -31,000 (4.5% of TVC)
- 2005 Gov. – Kaine: -49,000 (6.5 % of TVC)
- 2005 Lt. Gov – Byrne: -105,000 (14% of TVC)
- 2005 AG – Deeds: -67,000 (8.9 % of TVC)

The average loss was 7.08% of TVC, with a standard deviation of 4.7%, suggesting a range of Democratic losses here as ranging from 2.4% to 11.8% of TVC.

It is clear from these numbers that Democrats obviously have much greater potential to pick up or, obviously, lose more votes in the GOP Districts, where there is relatively wide fluctuation in Democratic candidate performance, than in the Democratic districts, where the data suggests Democrats consistently perform near the apogee of what is reasonably possible.

To quantify this, take a look at how Creigh might fare in 2009, using 2005 turnout numbers, if he followed a Rural-centric or “Urban Crescent-centric” strategy, and applying the potential ranges of margins of victory and of loss, respectively, in both Democratic and Republican strong holds:

The Urban Crescent Strategy
Margin of Victory in Dem Districts (assuming best performance w/in Std Dev): 155,000
Margin of loss in GOP Districts (assuming average performance): 55,000
Differential: Creigh + 100,000
Benefit to Creigh vs. Average: 24,000

The Rural strategy
Margin of victory in Dem Districts (assuming average performance): 138,000
Margin of loss in GOP Districts (assuming best performance w/in Std Dev): 18,200
Differential: Creigh + 119,800
Benefit to Creigh vs. Average: 43,800

Thus, roughly the potential to pick up 20,000 more votes.

This analysis, however, addresses only the quantitative issue, i.e., whether this strategy makes sense given the potential reward. It does not address the issue of whether, under the particular circumstances of this campaign, it is a good strategy to follow. That requires consideration of at least four, undoubtedly more, significant qualitative factors, i.e., considerations that evaluate the possibility of Creigh reaching the greatest beneficial potential.

First is the issue of the effect of Creigh’s base in rural areas. Lowell assumes that because Creigh is from a rural area, by virtue of geography alone Creigh will already get sufficient votes in rural Virginia, more than is typical for a Democrat. “This year, we've got a candidate from western/rural Virginia, which means he should have a natural competitive advantage in that part of Virginia,” Lowell wrote. “If not, he's probably toast anyway.”

This argument, however, clearly suggests Creigh should make an aggressive pitch for rural votes, not sit back. Creigh may have competitive advantages in rural areas, as Lowell states, but those advantages will come only into play if he actually competes for the votes. To me, that is one of the major lessons of the Warner campaign. If you want the votes, ask for them.

Which brings me to the second qualitative factor, namely, whether Creigh is a Democrat who can connect with these rural voters, or whether Mark Warner is, as Lowell put it, sui generis?

Again, Warner is the exception that proves the rule. Warner might very well be sui generis in terms of an urban politician, but here is where Creigh’s rural roots come into play. Warner, of course, required Mudcat Saunders to help him connect with rural voters; Creigh is the real deal. If he can do it, then no Democrat can. But like Warner, because he is a Democrat he will have to work for it. He can’t take it for granted just because he from a rural area.

Third, does Creigh risk anything by not focusing solely on the Urban Crescent? The answer is no. The numbers show a relatively tight range of potential returns in that area, as the data suggests that even a poor performance by Creigh in the Dem strong holds would leave him with a margin of 24%, or 9,000 votes fewer that he could expect on average. Thus, a strong performance in rural areas still leaves him ahead of the game.

Fourth is the great unknown of turnout, specifically turnout by the Obama voter. Hundreds of thousands of voters registered last year; were they strictly Obama voters, or have they become engaged in Virginia's political process to the extent that the state races have captured their attention? That is unknown right now.

One last matter: asserting that going after the rural vote is a worthwhile strategy is not a judgment on whether Deeds Country was an effective tactic in pursuit of this strategy. This piece is already too long for me to consider that.

But I will say, for any rural strategy to be effective, it needs to connect on some visceral level with all Democrats around the state,, rural, urban and suburban at the same time. You can’t say one thing in Danville and another in Falls Church; you can be an “aw shucks yokel” in bath, and a smart, sophisticated lawyer in Fairfax. But this can be achieved by intelligently discussing the issues that are common to all Democrats – economic and social justice, a clean environment, education available to all, and fairness in the allocation of burdens among all people for raising resources to improve our Commonwealth, from the perspective of how Creigh’s rural and traditional roots informs his thinking on these issues.

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