Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Reading the Tea Leaves: Primary Analysis

Yesterday's results in the Kentucky primary suggest that Democrats will greet their November ballot with a mixture of outrage and apathy, assuming that they even vote.

Kentucky's overwhelming defeat of Barack Obama is being portrayed as simple racism, rather than a rejection of politics that are too far left for this commonwealth. Regardless of the reason for voting against him, however, the fact remains that the presumptive Democratic nominee is hugely unpopular in Kentucky.

The record turnout among Democrats, moreover, does not necessarily mean the Democratic base will be energized for November. Indeed, it suggests the opposite. After all, this record turnout voted two to one against Obama. The numbers are even more dramatic if Louisville and Lexington are excluded from the analysis; the Clinton victory margin increases to 77-23.

The Clintons worked hard for this victory, and did everything but buy one of Bruce Lunsford's extra apartments so that they could take up residency. Consequently, Obama spins his shellacking as a non-defeat, arguing that he never really tried to win Kentucky. That's hard to square with all the offices he opened, all the yard signs his many volunteers distributed. Obama easily outspent the strapped Clinton campaign and drew much bigger crowds than Clinton. The Obama rally in Louisville last week drew at least 8,000 people; Hillary's victory party in Louisville last night drew only 1,200. Obama lost and lost big.

The Democratic primary for U.S. Senate was in one regard the opposite of the presidential primary, because the presumptive nominee -- Bruce Lunsford -- actually won. Unlike Obama, however, Lunsford received a return for outspending his rival, Greg Fischer, two to one.

Yet in those areas where the Fischer TV ads aired (pathetic as they were), Fischer was very competitive. That Fischer was able to attract 34 percent of the vote statewide, after such a weak campaign, suggests that there are Democrats who wanted any warm body who wasn't Lunsford.

That discontent among Democrats may stem from a Lunsford campaign that was internally contradictory. On the one hand -- parroting Obama -- Lunsford claimed to be the agent of change. On the other hand, he worked hard to establish his Democratic street cred -- boasting about how he has funded and worked for the Democratic party for 30 years. That, plus his status as Senator Chuck Schumer's hand-picked candidate, makes Lunsford look like just another establishment pol. It's no wonder, therefore, that the progressive blogosphere gravitated to Fischer over Lunsford.

The turnout was instructive, as well. Of those Democrats who voted in the presidential primary, 80,000 did not vote in the U.S. Senate primary -- even though they had eight candidates from which to choose. (In future years, this will be known as the Chuck Schumer effect.). That is, the Democratic turnout for the presidential primary was 43 percent, but the turnout for U.S. Senate race dropped to 38 percent.

That doesn't seem to show much broad-based support to "Ditch Mitch." And it certainly can't be seen as support for an Obama-led ticket, given that he lost two to one.

On the Republican side, the turnout for the presidential primary was virtually identical to that for the U.S. Senate primary; there was no falloff.

Senator Mitch McConnell's margin of victory (86 percent) was in line with his previous primaries. Even though neither the presidential nor the U.S. Senate race were seriously contested on the Republican side, McConnell's raw vote (roughly 170,000) was up considerably from his previous record (88,000). It seems that the high Democratic turnout prompted Republicans to register and vote. Some of that increase might stem from interest in supporting Anne Northup in her primary.

What this means for November: McCain and McConnell support looks solid among their base. For the Democrats, a ticket with Obama at the head will be hugely unpopular and will probably depress turnout. And among those Democrats who do vote in November, support for Lunsford appears tepid, given the large number of Democrats who voted for a presidential nominee but didn't even bother to vote for a senate nominee. Approximately 80,000 votes didn't think enough of Lunsford or his seven rivals to even bother casting a vote -- though these voters were in the booth with pencil in one hand and ballot in the other.

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