Saturday, May 15, 2010

Arkansas Picks Its Senate Candidates

On Tuesday, the voters in my home state of Arkansas will go to the polls.

The Democrats and Republicans of Arkansas will decide who their nominees (or the two contestants in decisive runoffs to be held in June) will be for a bunch of offices. Three of the state's four House seats are being vacated. Arkansans also will choose their governor this year, but I don't think there are contests for either party's nomination.

Currently, the state's congressional delegation is heavily Democratic, just as it always was when I was growing up there — both senators and three of the four representatives are Democrats. And one of those senators, Blanche Lincoln, is running for re–election.

It's possible, I suppose, that the governor's race will get really hot this fall, but, right now, it appears that the Senate race is really the marquee matchup this year — in both parties.

And the latest polls indicate that Lincoln is leading in the race for the Democratic nomination by nine points, but she's still a few points short of a majority. Her support level has remained in the 40s in the polls I have seen, and if she doesn't receive a majority of the vote on Tuesday, she will have to win a runoff so she isn't out of the woods yet. Her main rival is the state's lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, who went to high school with a friend of mine. He's seen his support level rise into the mid–30s in the last few weeks.

I don't know much about Halter, but I've heard him described as a Bill Clintonesque policy wonk — without Clinton's charisma.

The X factor, I guess, is a businessman named D.C. Morrison, who appears to be making a name for himself with his folksy campaign quips — a la Ross Perot. None of the polls I have seen suggest that Morrison is anywhere near drawing enough votes to get into a runoff — but his vote total just might decide whether Lincoln must face a runoff challenge.

David Jarman observes for — and rightly so — that the mystery to be resolved on Tuesday is not whether Lincoln will get the most votes, for she almost certainly will. But even if she runs first, she may be in trouble if she does not avoid a runoff.

If there is a runoff, it will be a good test for a pet theory of mine, which is: In any election, general or primary, involving an incumbent, anyone who votes for one of the incumbent's challengers is more likely to vote against that incumbent if his/her first choice does not make the runoff — or would have voted against the incumbent anyway even if his/her preference was not on the ballot.

In other words, any old port in a storm. If you're voting against an incumbent, I believe you would be likely to vote against that incumbent no matter what your option might be.

I've felt this way for a long time, but I guess I really started refining it in my head following the 1992 presidential election.

In that election, the incumbent (George H.W. Bush) was renominated by the Republicans, even though many had criticized him for his handling of the economy and many felt betrayed on the taxes issue. The Democrats nominated the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, whose memorable campaign mantra was "It's the economy, stupid."

And then there was Perot, who was running, then he wasn't, then he was running again as an independent. He often appeared flakey in the closing weeks of the campaign, but his message about the future of the American economy resonated with many voters, and he wound up receiving nearly one–fifth of the popular vote.

Clinton, of course, was elected president. He received 43% of the vote. Bush finished nearly 6 million votes behind Clinton, with 37.5% of the vote.

At the time, I was living in Oklahoma, which has, at times, voted for Democrats — for governor, congressman, senator — but not for president since 1964. And I heard some disgruntled Republicans who complained bitterly that Bush would have won if Perot had not been a candidate.

Well, that went against what I had heard from exit polls that were conducted on Election Day. These polls were conducted by polling firms that I believe are reliable — and exit polls have always struck me as more reliable than pre–election polls because the people being polled have already voted and are, for the most part, telling the pollster why they voted the way they did. They aren't speculating about how they will vote.

The polls I saw tended to agree that, if Perot had not been on the ballot, it would not have reversed the outcome. About 40% of Perot's voters said they would have voted for Bush if Perot had not been on the ballot. Another 40% said they would have voted for Clinton. And the remaining 20% said they would not have voted at all.

Those polls suggested that there would have been virtually no change in the Electoral College, which Clinton won by a wide margin.

Actually, given the high level of dissatisfaction with the incumbent that year, my guess is that far more of Perot's voters would have voted for Clinton if Perot had decided to withdraw for good.

Some may have been motivated to vote for Perot for reasons other than the economy, and they may well have been repulsed by Clinton over any one of several issues (legitimate or not) that his opponents chose to emphasize during the messy general campaign of 1992. Thus, those voters probably would have voted for Bush if the choice had been between the president and Clinton — assuming that they felt strongly enough about it to vote.

But I remember speaking with several Perot voters that year, and most expressed a deep disdain for Bush's handling of just about everything. Some may have had their reservations about Clinton, too, but none ever spoke of those.

Anyway, back to the Senate race in Arkansas ...

The Republicans seem likely to have a runoff as well. The front–runner, Rep. John Boozman who is vacating his House seat to run for the Senate, leads his closest rival by 27 points, but he's still a few points shy of a majority. In my experience growing up in Arkansas, when the second–place candidate has to make up that much ground in a runoff, it's practically an impossible task.

And, besides, Boozman isn't an incumbent so my theory doesn't really apply to the Republican race.

When an anti–incumbent mood is in the air, that's when you want to be seen as an outsider. Lincoln doesn't exactly qualify as one, which is one of the reasons why I wondered about the wisdom of having Barack Obama record a radio ad for her (see the attached video clip).

I guess Democrats who have never lived in Arkansas are prone to look at the state as the party's last refuge in the Republican South.

And, as president, one of Obama's roles clearly is to be the leader of his party. As such, perhaps he has been discovering how important it is for him to have Democrats in Congress to help him with anything else he would like to accomplish while in office — even though Democrats have shown themselves to be the same timid and ineffective wielders of legislative power that they have been in the past.

I don't admire much about Republican politics, but I do respect their tendency to do what they believe to be right (however misguided they may be) and treat bipartisanship as a worthy but probably unattainable (in most cases) objective, welcome if it occurs but not necessary if one can enact policy without it.

Right now, the Democrats can do most of the things they want to do in Congress without much, if any, help from their Republican colleagues. But that window is rapidly closing — even with the good news that jobs have been added to the economy in the last couple of months. Voters who became accustomed to the steady drumbeat of bad news for the last couple of years are going to require several months of good news to be convinced that things are turning around; they're still understandably skittish.

Earlier in the campaign, Lincoln tried to tap into that anti–incumbent mood by presenting herself as a voice of sanity in a childish legislative atmosphere. That doesn't seem to have done the trick, though, so, in the waning days of the campaign, apparently she wants to channel some of the president's popularity.

Perhaps the radio ad featuring Obama's endorsement (even though Lincoln has not been a dedicated supporter of the Obama agenda) may help her win the primary. But, down the road, I think it might hurt her in Arkansas.

I'm not really sure why folks outside Arkansas seem to be convinced the state is so much more progressive than other states in the South, including the state where I live now, Texas. Maybe it is because Arkansas produced the only other Democratic president in nearly 30 years.

And, yes, I realize that Texas hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1976, whereas Arkansas did support its native son twice.

But, in terms of percentages, Texas actually gave Obama a greater share of its vote in 2008 than Arkansas did. More than 58% of Arkansas voters voted for John McCain, while 55% of Texas voters did. Of course, Obama didn't make much of an effort to win over Arkansas in 2008. To me, it seems a little lame to be trying to throw his political weight around there now — Arkansans haven't been showing much approval of what Obama has been doing in office.

Maybe, as I say, it will help Lincoln win her party's nomination. Arkansas' Democrats may be receptive to the message from the president.

But I don't think its Republicans and independents will be — and I am all but certain that Boozman will bring up that radio ad on the campaign trail this fall.

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