Friday, June 09, 2006

When bad things happen to good elections

I promised Wednesday to work up a lengthy post examining how a Holocaust denier who speaks of "the global war on whites to replace the whites of the world with brown-skinned people" could have won 43.5 percent of the vote Tuesday in the Democratic race for Alabama attorney general. Fortunately, someone at the (Mobile) Press-Register seemed equally befuddled by the Larry Darby conundrum, and the newspaper has produced a superb analysis of the factors at play. Still, I have some more to add.

To wit, the main conclusion in the Press-Register's story seems to be that many voters unfamiliar either with Darby or Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, Jr., simply went with the name listed first on the ballot. This theory makes a lot of sense and conceivably could account for a large majority of Darby's votes.

Tyson spent almost nothing on television advertising during this election cycle, meaning his only widespread name recognition was in his native south Alabama, where he won by huge margins. Pre-election polls reflected the fact that Tyson was a relative unknown; a month before the vote, he had a 9-point lead with about two-thirds of the electorate still undecided in the race. In addition, Darby's repulsive views, while common knowledge among state political junkies, were mentioned only a handful of times in print and received almost no meaningful TV coverage. It's safe to say that most Alabamians simply didn't know what Darby advocated.

Whatever their politics, one thing a whole lot of voters don't like to do is to leave anything blank. That's where the "pick and choose" principle comes into play. If you assume that Darby's level of core support was around the disturbingly high 12 percent in that April survey and then split the undecided vote in half, you get numbers very similar to the vote percentages in Tuesday's AG race.

Bearing in mind the studies that show candidates can gain up to a 6-point advantage from being first in ballot order, and assuming the "pick and choose" principle accounted for at least some of the 12 percent in that April survey, one fairly could conjecture that the percentage of people who cast an informed vote for Darby was in the single digits -- still far too many, but nowhere near a mind-numbing 43.5 percent. Tyson's primary gamble was to rely on overwhelming support near the Gulf Coast as the difference maker and to save his campaign funds for a fall showdown against Republican AG Troy King. It paid off in the end, but the side effect was a nasty PR black eye for the state Democratic Party.

In an interesting side note, the state's highly influential group of black Democrats, the Alabama Democratic Conference, also could have contributed to Darby's strong performance. The ADC chose not to endorse Tyson because its chairman didn't like how the Mobile DA has prosecuted the former Mobile County school board president, who is black. The ADC's backing could have diminished the "pick and choose" phenomenon that helped Darby, and the group's silence on the AG race probably cost Tyson the sort of rock-solid black support that could have fueled a landslide.

The Darby fiasco offers important lessons to Tyson, Democratic officials, and all Alabamians. For Tyson, it's a demonstration of the importance of building name recognition before November. For Democratic officials, it's an example of the need to pay careful attention to surreptitious warning signs in shadowy underground news sources -- like, say, when the capital city's largest newspaper mentions seven months before the election that one of your would-be contenders for state office is hosting a speech by a Holocaust denier. And for all Alabamians, it's a scary reminder that the ballot is not a standardized test: No one loses any points for leaving one blank now and then.


Blogger Don said...

It’s really weird why some people vote the way they do, or don’t bother to vote at all. I would prefer the latter if they aren’t going to cast informed votes. Maybe everyone should be required to obtain a “Certification of Sanity and Intelligence” before being allowed to vote.
It would be interesting to know if some non- and/or disgruntled Democratic voters voted for Darby just to embarrass the party for allowing Darby to run on its ballot. I know that might require a warped mind, but………………
Then too, some of his votes may have come via something similar to what my wife witnessed when she was voting. A lady sitting next to her with her little daughter handed the pen to her little girl and told her that she had filled in the arrows for what few candidates she wanted to vote for so the little girl could fill in an arrow for one name for each office she hadn’t marked.

12:29 PM  
Blogger Mikerson said...

Don: I think they had something along those lines under the Jim Crow laws. That might not be the best strategy to endorse.

But people do need to learn more about being able to abstain from certain portions of the ballot. Perhaps Worley can make that part of her next set of voter education ads in November.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Kathy said...

Don, that is just...unreal! I take my kids with me to demonstrate the importance of voting, but I'd never dream of handing them the pencil -- although, knowing my kids, they'd probably be familiar with most of the names on the ballot.

Great post! I'm going to link to it.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

Good story, Don, but a little scary. You're also right that crossover and protest votes could have accounted for a few of those votes, too.

Mikerson, it's odd that Worley felt the need to appear personally in those ads, isn't it?

Thanks for the link, Kathy.

8:25 PM  
Blogger alaskaguy said...

I guess Im a little confused. Why is this guy so popular in South Alabama?

And I've another question. I haven't read much out of your blog, maybe a couple of times, this being oneof them. But you pull a lot of articles from the Press Register. Is it a good paper?

3:22 AM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

Tyson was big in south Alabama because he's the district attorney in Mobile, the largest metropolitan area in that half of the state. People in that region know his name, and he has an excellent reputation there.

I pull lots of stories from the Press-Register, but I probably get even more from The Birmingham News. They're the state's two biggest papers, so they have the resources to offer what I see as the state's consistently best political coverage. As smaller papers go, The Decatur Daily has impressed me a lot during this election cycle, too.

7:40 AM  

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