Euphoria swept the Fountain Square Ballroom on Election Night '98 once it became obvious we Democrats had a good day. Among the victories, the electorate chose a dynamic, progressive Democrat for county commissioner, Brian O'Neill, and three Democrats for county council. One of the council candidates, Mark Stoops, was even a progressive and an environmental stalwart.
On Election Night '02, however, euphoric was not the condition of Democrats - well, at least not for most. The electorate reselected the progressive and environmental Democratic council incumbent, but removed the progressive Democratic commissioner and rejected three Democratic council candidates.
Two of the rejected council candidates, Lucille Bertuccio and Bill Hayden, were among the most progressive candidates any party, including the minor parties, have ever offered Monroe County. What happened to make such a difference between two elections? I think by looking first at the differences between the off-year elections the causes may suggest themselves.
Only two interrelated things are ultimately important when analyzing and planning elections: turnout and support. You want a high turnout of your supporters and high support from those who turn out. Just how many Democrats and Independents who lean Democratic turned out in both election years?
A decent way to estimate partisan turnout, since voters don't wear partisan badges nor have partisan physical features, is to look at a generic race. By generic race I mean a contest in which none of the candidates are known and thus party label becomes almost the sole cue for voters. Usually any, or an average, of the state administrative races are used. For this analysis I used the Treasurer of the State contest as the generic estimate of party strength.
In '98 in the generic race, Republicans beat Democrats 49.7 percent to 44.7 percent, with the Libertarians getting 5.6 percent. In '02 things got worse for the Democrats, with the Republicans getting a 10 percent difference in the generic race, 51.9 percent to 41.5 percent. Did this change in generic partisanship come from between-election switching or from respective nonvoting in the '02 election?
The generic race, as did the whole '02 election, saw a decline in voter participation compared with the previous off-year election. Of the 1,816 voter drop-offs in the generic race between '98 and '02, nearly 90 percent (1,628) of it came from the Democrats. In fact, the Republicans lost only 360 voters at the generic line in last Tuesday's election.
As estimated from the generic vote, the '02 election had about the same number of Republicans and around 13 percent fewer Democrats.
Did the change in partisan turnout matter? You bet! Looking at Democratic Commissioner Brian O'Neill's race, we see that in '98 he got nearly 22 percent more votes than the Generic Democrat. In '02, he got about 12 percent more votes than the Generic Democrat. His opponent in '98 got about 6 percent fewer votes than the Generic Republican and in '02 got about 10 percent more.
Sounds impressive for O'Neill's '02 opponent, Herb Kilmer, doesn't it? Yet the simple fact is that even if O'Neill had repeated his 22 percent over the generic performance of '98, he still would have lost in '02 because of the relatively lower generic Democratic vote. Needing 13,090 votes to win, he would have only gotten 12,800. On the other hand, had the generic partisan turnout in '02 equaled that of '98, then even the lower 12 percent more O'Neill votes than the generic Democrat would have produced 13,572 votes, or a narrow victory. Such is the power of partisan turnout!
Why didn't more Democrats (persons who vote Democratic in generic races) turn out? The three levels of government give us some clues.
Nationally, many Democratic analysts and politicians claim that the national party has not sufficiently demarcated itself from the national Republicans and have given the Bush Administration a free ride. The consequence has been a growing number of dispirited Democrats in the electorate for whom the party label is a discounted and fuzzy political cue.
At the state level, many incumbent governors seem to have lost popularity as the economy has gone South with a bad effect on state finances. Indiana governor Frank O'Bannon has not escaped this fate and his administration has become a drag on the party label - again reducing its value as a voting cue.
Locally, some Democrats defeated in the party's primary have stomped on the party label in a vat of sour grapes. Sneering at the primary election decision of the party's rank-and-file, they have actively campaigned for Republicans. Furthermore, they sullied the party organization in the ever-eager-for-a-spoon-fed-story Herald-Times.
Small wonder that some potential voters were confused about the local Democratic Party. With ambiguous partisan cues, potential Democratic supporters simply didn't vote. Despite the lessening of partisanship in determining voting behavior, it is still recognized as the most significant variable in voting.
Furthermore, the turncoats had a demoralizing effect initially on Democratic Party workers. Time spent defending the party organization from sniping from those who supped long and often at its table was time not spent on campaign organization and delivery. The irony here is that their infidelity and its impact on Democratic turnout harmed the political career of their local political Adonis, John Fernandez. Imagine the spin required to convince the big national and state players that loosing your own county to "whatever was the Republican's name" is really a sign of electoral strength.
The '02 local election also ushered into local campaigning a heretofore-unseen nastiness grounded in inaccurate and irrelevant claims about the opponent's character. Brian O'Neill and Lucille Bertuccio in particular were the targets of politics as character assassination. The crudeness of the messages may have not produced many results had their availability been limited. But obscene and unprecedented amounts of land speculator and developer money, some from the Turncoat Democrats mentioned above, made sure that the nastiness was offered wide and often.
The ultimate result may not have been to swing voters to the Republican candidates, but to suppress turnout, particularly of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Political science confirms that nasty campaigning suppresses voter turnout, that voters blame all candidates and not just the offenders, and that Democrats are more sensitive to and turned off by reptilian campaigning. As shown above, turnout suppression was enough for a Republican victory.
To augment the nastiness of the Republican campaign and the treachery of sour-graped Democrats, Bill Hayden, the Democratic candidate in Council 2, had to contend with the "party-building over environmental and social justice" myopia of the Monroe County Green Party. Their candidate, Julie Roberts, cannibalized enough Hayden vote to put the cognitively challenged, unfettered property rights advocate Trent Jones into public office.
Their innocence would be charming if it wouldn't produce even greater permissive land-use decisions and more governmental incentives for greenfield development and other developer initiatives. Having been doggedly on the side of environmental protection since before Ms. Roberts was out of grade school wasn't enough to get Mr. Hayden a clear shot at his Republican opponent.
Perhaps the MCGP believed that Mr. Hayden shouldn't have run and let Ms. Roberts alone face the Republican. If so, why do they believe that a developer-friendly Democrat, say Mr. Hayden's primary opponent, would not have been the Democratic candidate? No matter Hayden or Travis Vencel, the Republican still would have been guaranteed around 44 percent, and Ms. Roberts would have had to split the remaining 56 percent with a Democrat. Is realism a mortal or venal sin in the world of the philodox?
The beauty and fun of talking about elections is that more can always be said. The beauty and fun of doing elections is the euphoria of victory, the excitement of the chase, and the satisfaction of not sitting on the sidelines and letting the other guy do it all. Progressive politics require persons willing and able to do election work.
The rewards are found in a governmental decision process where progressive policy preferences become part of the public agenda with an honest chance of implementation. The general election of '02 was a step backwards from those rewards. If serious minded progressives can come together and learn the lessons of this election, then post-Election '02 might become two steps forward to a better, not just bigger, Monroe County.Don Moore is campaign advisor to the Monroe County Democratic Party Executive Committee.