Your noble pundit recently journeyed to the Buffalo area to help out in the congressional race in the New York special election where three candidates vied to replace scandal-plagued, Republican Christopher Lee. In a result widely attributed to the fight over Medicare, the winner and new member of Congress, Democrat and Erie County Clerk Kathy Hochul defeated Republican Assemblywoman Jane Corwin, and Tea-Party candidate Jack Davis.
Knocking on New York doors gave me a new appreciation for how beautiful Connecticut is. But it also immersed me in the sort of number-based analysis you have come to expect from The Greek. Although it’s dangerous to draw too much from special elections, Hochul’s upset win does have implications for Connecticut’s upcoming congressional races, and the New York experience foreshadows the sort of mail and phone calls registered party members will receive by June and all voters will start getting in August.
What the numbers tell us.
Special elections are marked by one salient feature: far fewer people vote. Although recent results for New York remain incomplete, it is safe to conclude that last Tuesday’s vote total was only a bit more than half the number who voted in the 2010 Congressional race, and only 38 percent of the larger number who voted in the 2008 Congressional election. As a point of comparison, more people voted for the Democrat who took just 26 percent against Chris Lee in 2010 than for the victorious Kathy Hochul. Additionally, more people voted for the Democrat who lost with 41 percent of the vote in 2008, than voted in total on Tuesday.
Last Tuesday’s slim turnout is particularly remarkable when considering that roughly $10 million was spent on all sides in this cycle versus the less than one million spent in 2010. Obviously there were other races potentially driving turnout in 2010, but the inability of money alone to drive turnout is noteworthy. Even a small electorate, however, is capable of sending messages.
Of course the clearest message is Democrat Kathy Hochul’s victory with 47 percent of the slightly more than one hundred thousand votes cast. The Republican Jane Corwin won 43 percent, and former Democratic nominee, now self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate Jack Davis spent three million dollars to win 9 percent. The Green Party candidate took 1 percent. These results tell us the following:
First, the Republican effort to blame Corwin’s defeat on Jack Davis has only a certain kind of plausibility. Three way races do create confusion, and Davis’ presence engaged the voters with the prospects of a competitive contest. Ultimately, however, attributing Hochul’s victory to the three-way race would be unwise. The final vote tally shows that reversing the outcome would have required 100 percent of Davis supporters to vote, and more than 70 percent them to vote for Corwin. Both outcomes are exceedingly unlikely.
Second, the 26th Congressional District is not as Republican as people are saying. The district has been won by statewide Democrats relatively recently, and it gave President Obama 46 percent of the vote in 2008. A fair Connecticut comparison would be that this district is about as Republican as Connecticut’s Second Congressional District. While the Second obviously offers a strong advantage to the Democrats, the right conditions produced three straight victories for Republican Rob Simmons followed by a very close loss. So we in Connecticut shouldn’t be too surprised by Hochul’s victory.
Third , even though the 26th Congressional District is not an overwhelmingly Republican district, congressional Republicans currently hold roughly 100 districts that have similar Republican totals or even less. Since Democrats only need a net gain of 24 seats to re-take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, last Tuesday’s result shows that small changes can lead to big changes.
What the result means for Connecticut U.S. House Races
Re-districting remains to be completed, and so we do not know exactly what the 2012 lines will be. But it’s safe to say that the new districts will have mostly similar boundaries to those of today.
Connecticut’s First and Third Congressional Districts are dramatically more Democratic than New York’s 26th Congressional District is Republican. The odds of there being a competitive race in either of these races are small indeed, barring a scandal or some unlikely event that might override the partisan balance. Looking only at partisan breakdown, the other three districts would theoretically create some potential for competition. As noted, the Second District is roughly as Democratic as the 26th is Republican. Democrats have had the recent edge in the Fourth but that margin is smaller than the Republican edge in 26th. And the newly open Fifth has a slight Democratic lean.
As the national parties gauge their upcoming prospects, they will look both at 2008 results and recent trends such as the New York outcome in deciding how to spend resources. 2012 looms against the backdrop of an overwhelming Democratic year in 2008. Obama won Connecticut’s Fifth Congressional District by a larger margin than the one John McCain accumulated in New York‘s 26th. But because it is an open seat, and because it is very closely divided between the parties, Connecticut’s Fifth will likely still draw a lot of attention.
The key to Connecticut’s Fourth Congressional District is whether a potential Republican challenger can raise the money necessary to run a competitive race. The district clearly has the donor base to support candidates on both sides of aisle. Not so for Connecticut’s Second District. Even when a potentially strong candidate such as state Rep. Chris Coutu, the donor base within Connecticut’s Second is probably not large enough to permit a serious challenge.
In 2010 despite a very favorable map, the national Republicans did not put serious resources into the Second. With the Map moving slightly back toward the Democrats due to potential Obama coattails, Republicans may need to defend more seats rather than be on the attack as in 2010. New York’s 26th only further confirms this sense of the map, which could very well mean that Connecticut’s Second will not see a competitive race. There is only so much money to go around and the Second may fall outside the national Republicans target of opportunity.
What this means for your phones and mail boxes.
One final lesson comes not from the numbers but from my experience knocking on doors. Our volunteers heard endlessly of how often we had been contacting voters, both at their doors and on the phones. We were working very hard to reach a relatively smaller number of voters. The size of the New York special election voter pool is more like what Connecticut sees in our primaries than the turnout in a presidential year. But our voters can still anticipate a similar onslaught, particularly in Connecticut’s Fifth district. I don’t have a solution that fully satisfies the voters who feel bothered yet also addresses the campaigns’ genuine need to remind voters to vote.
But one obvious step in the right direction is for campaigns voluntarily to give up on the use of automated telephone calls, or, as the parlance goes, robo-calls. These calls are the lowest form of the campaign effort.
First, they have never been shown to work even remotely well at getting people to vote. Second, they are insulting to voters. If I, as someone who cares about the election, call you on the phone or knock on your door, you can be annoyed because someone is bothering you. But at least the person contacting you is taking their time too. So it is a one to one transaction. You have a right to value your time more than someone else does. But when a campaign uses a robo-call they effectively value the time of their potential constituents at zero. That is simply the wrong way to behave. Ending robo-calls is a simple change and it probably won’t eliminate the annoyance of the campaign season altogether. But a New York thing that moves us back toward respecting voters is good and the costs to campaigns are minimal.
Jason Paul is a Connecticut political operative from West Hartford who will be attending the University of Connecticut Law School in the fall.