"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

12/08/2008

On Overstating Republican Strength

The normally reliable Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post recently wrote a column arguing that Republicans could be making a comeback. He cited Saxby Chambliss's victory in the Georgia Senate runoff, the surprise defeat of Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson, and the Republicans' ability to narrowly defeat a conservative Democratic challenger for an open seat in a conservative Louisiana congressional district as reasons why Republicans should be optimistic.

However, this is the type of journalism that political scientists and mass communication researchers dread. Cillizza's story seems to be more about creating news where no news exists, or at the very least inflating the news so that it seems more significant than it really is. His story about a possible Republican comeback may make for good political discussion and speculation for junkies, but it does a great disservice to more casual voters who rely on the media to provide them with factual information.

The long and short of it is, Republicans should have been able to win all of these elections.

In Saxby Chambliss's case, he hails from conservative-leaning Georgia. Georgia voted for John McCain by about 5 points. Montana was more competitive than Georgia on November 4. It is also more conservative than North Carolina, which actually voted for Obama and lost its incumbent Republican senator Elizabeth Dole. Dole was dogged by her own lackluster campaign and an ill-advised attack on challenger Kay Hagan that tried to link her to atheists. Chambliss did not make any fatal mistakes and was serving a more conservative state than Dole. On top of this, Barack Obama's name was not on the ballot. This obviously dampened turnout among Democrats and Black voters. Also, runoff elections tend to benefit the candidate who has the better organization. Obama had some field offices in Georgia, but he did not challenge the state in the final weeks. Chambliss also had the advantage of a strong state Republican Party that could help turn out the vote. Thus, this was an election Chambliss should have won comfortably.

On a related note, some pundits have wondered how much Governor Sarah Palin impacted the race because of her multiple campaign appearances and ability to draw large crowds. This is very difficult to measure because of all the variables listed earlier. Dole's defeat in neighboring North Carolina is big news. Chambliss's comfortable victory in conservative Georgia isn't. Conservative Republicans win elections in conservative states, regardless of Palin's campaigning. Both Mississippi senators, both Wyoming senators, and one of Alabama's senators all won their reelection bids on November 4 with ease.

The same rule applies to Louisiana's 4th District. This seat had been held by a Republican, but Democrats thought they had a chance to steal it because it was an open seat. Paul Carmouche, a socially conservative Democrat who had served as a parish (county) district attorney did indeed have a chance to win this election, but it was ultimately a bit too heavily Republican for him. This district gave John McCain 60% of the vote. So it should not be much of a surprise that conservative Republican Paul Fleming was able to win this election, although a recount is expected. And if Republicans are looking at this victory as evidence of a Republican comeback, the fact that the Republican House candidate performed more than 10 points worse than John McCain should also signify Democratic strength in Republican areas.

One point to keep in mind is that one of the few incumbent Democrats to lose her reelection bid last month was Nancy Boyda of Kansas. Her victory in 2006 was considered one of the biggest surprises of the cycle, especially since moderate Republican Chris Shays had survived. But Boyda's district (KS-2) was solidly Republican, so she would have had great trouble holding this seat in any political climate. So how can a Democrat's defeat in a conservative district in Louisiana signify Republican strength while a Democrat's defeat in a conservative district in Kansas not signify the same thing?

The defeat of Rep. Bill Jefferson by Republican Ahn Cao is definitely a bright spot for the GOP. However, this election had unusual circumstances and looked a lot more like 2006 than 2008. Bill Jefferson (of frozen money infamy) was one of the main embarrassments of the Democratic Party that was giving House Speaker Nancy Pelosi headaches. While voters in his New Orleans district were willing to give him a pass in 2006, they had clearly had enough in 2008. Jefferson almost certainly would have won reelection had the election taken place on November 4 with Obama at the top of the ballot. But because of Hurricane Gustav, the election was rescheduled. And like Georgia's runoff Senate race, turnout was down.

Republicans are right to look at Cao, who is of Vietnamese descent, as the future of the party because it needs to find a way to become competitive among people of color and in big cities and the suburbs again. However, he now represents a congressional district that was specifically drawn to elect a Black (Democratic) candidate. So it is likely that Cao will be defeated in 2010, just like Nick Lampson was defeated this year. Lampson was elected in 2006 to represent Tom Delay's old district in Texas. That district was simply too Republican for Lampson to hold even though he voted like a conservative Democrat. Under normal circumstances, a Republican doesn't stand a chance in a majority-Black district because Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic. But it is most definitely not normal for scandal-plagued politicians to keep winning elections. Just ask Alaska's Ted Stevens.

One other point about Fleming's victory and Cao's shocker is that they both occurred in Louisiana, a state that is becoming more Republican because of demographic changes. Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav have caused many New Orleans residents to leave the state. New Orleans was a majority Black city before Katrina, but it is about evenly split now. This is not to minimize the Republicans' victories in Louisiana, but there were certainly several institutional and demographic variables working in their favor.

The most important fact that Chris Cillizza missed is that Republicans should not measure their strength in terms of their ability to win elections in their base states. Kansas, Lousiana, and Georgia are all solidly Republican states. And almost any credible candidate can beat a corrupt congressman if the timing is right. Republicans have far more serious problems to worry about in other states that matter a lot more than the South and the rural Plains. A Democrat narrowly won a seat in Ohio last week that had been held by a Republican for more than 40 years, another Democrat defeated a Republican incumbent in another contested election in Virginia, and Republican Norm Coleman is in very real danger of losing his Senate reelection bid in Minnesota.

Republicans' problems aren't in Louisiana, Georgia, and Kansas, so they shouldn't be looking to those states for solace. Their problems, as I noted shortly after the election, are in Virginia, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, and the entire Northeast. Until Republicans start winning in these electorally rich purple and blue areas again, they are in a world of trouble. And it is for this reason that Cillizza's latest column seems to be more about giving political junkies something to chew on during a slow news time rather than providing an accurate analysis of what the political landscape actually looks like.

7 comment(s):

S.W. Anderson said...

Excellent critique. Proclaiming a trend based on an incumbent Republican senator winning in Georgia and a scandal-plagued, politically-dead-representative-walking being voted out anywhere makes me wonder what Cilizza has been smoking.

Then again, suspicious types might be excused for wondering if someone at the RNC, Newt Gingrich or Karl Rove wanted to see some "punditry" of this kind. Stranger things have happened.

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Mick said...

Solid analysis. Thanks!

King Politics said...

You're point about Boyda is on the mark and I expect Cao to become the next Boyda. There's no way he holds on to this seat in 2010 when Democrats pay attention to the race.

DB said...

The fact that a conservative winning a conservative district is "news" is rather telling of the state of the Republican Party right now. More and more we will continue to hear conservatives brand this country as center-right in an attempt to show that hope is not lost. The Democrats would be wise to premitively ward off the genius marketing ability of the Republican Party, otherwise we will hear more fallacies about this country be center-right, "liberal" being a bad word, and the "if you disagree with a Republican you hate America" mentality.

S.W. Anderson said...

Hello? Hope everything's OK, AP, and that you're having a fine holiday season.

Anthony Palmer said...

SWA,

I have to say that post-election politics has been disappointing. I mean, pundits and pols are looking for ANYTHING to talk about, even if that means manufacturing storylines. I never knew that Republicans winning in Georgia and Louisiana was such big news. Next thing you know, a Democrat will win in Vermont and the DNC will claim the party is still gathering strength.

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Anon,

Thanks for the site recommendation. I'll check it out.

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Mick,

Thanks for the compliment. If my analysis is solid, then I'm doing my job. Drop by again sometime!

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Dr. King,

The 2010 elections will be critical because of redistricting. It seems that Louisiana's GOP may be adopting the "change/reform" mantle with Jindal and now Cao. While I agree that Cao is a dead man walking, he may very well have a future in politics if districts get redrawn and Cao's district becomes a little more suburban.

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DB,

I don't know if the nation is center-right or not because consider this:

Republicans say McCain lost the election because he wasn't conservative enough.

Republicans also say Obama should govern from the center because that's where the country is.

How do you reconcile these two statements? If John McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough, that means the nation is not center-right, but rather right. They demand that a Democratic president govern from the center, but don't place similar demands on a Republican president. Go figure.

Seems to me like a successful Obama presidency would make "government" and "Democrats" and (gasp) "liberalism" cool again. We'll see.

Copyright 2007-2010 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.