November 8, 2006

How Much Did Straight-Ticket Voting Kill Rhode Island's Republicans?

Carroll Andrew Morse

The casino got crushed by a bigger margin than anyone expected, even though the result was consistent with every poll taken in the final weeks. At the same time, the Governor's race ended up much closer than expected, Elizabeth Roberts won by a bigger margin than projected, and Ralph Mollis won a race that many people thought his opponent would win. The GOTV for the casino was supposedly substantial, yet the casino race was the race that closed the least (as in not-at-all) relative to publicly-released polling. How do we explain all of this?

Obviously, part of the problem was that assumptions made by casino supporters about who would support them weren't valid. One insightful observer of RI politics suggested to me that casino proponents drastically underestimated how much living through the 60s and 70s made a large segment of the electorate leery of officially sanctioning potentially addictive behavior.

But there's another piece of this puzzle, beyond the failure of GOTV targeting. Voter turnout last night was at Presidential election year levels. The pro-casino targeting may not have had any association with support for Question 1, but it did probably mobilize a bunch of people to vote in a mid-term election who usually don't. What were these politically disengaged voters likely to do with the non-casino part of their ballots? I'm willing to bet that because of the sour mood towards Republicans in the country and/or because casino supporters came from demographic groups not traditionally friendly to Republicans, many of them picked the straight-ticket Democratic option available to them.

Straight ticket D voters would skew the results of candidate races, without changing the results of the casino ballot. More straight ticket D voters than usual, though they had nothing against candidates in down-ticket races, probably cost Sue Stenhouse the Secretary of State's race, cost Allan Fung the Cranston Mayoral race, and made races of many incumbent legislators thought to be safe much closer than expected.

I called the BOE for stats on how many straight ticket were cast, but they don't keep the information. It would be interesting if Darrell West and Victor Profughi and other Rhode Island pollsters added a question about "are you planning to vote the straight ticket Democratic or Republican option" to their standard surveys. And if exit pollers tracked this information, I'll bet they would have found many more straight-ticket voters than usual this year.

However big the effect was, there is an important lesson for the Rhode Island Republican party here. Unless RI Republicans can convince the legislature to remove the straight-ticket option from the ballot (HAHAHAHAHAHA), the stealth strategy -- "let's not tell people that we're Republicans when we run in an election, because that way we're more likely win over independents" -- will never work. To be competitive on a regular basis, RI Republicans are going to have to convince more people to actually become (or at least to like) Republicans. They are going to have to create a pool of voters who pick the all-Republican option on their ballots, cancelling out the all-Democratic voters, and leaving the final decision to the voters who actually fill out their ballots candidate-by-candidate.

It won't be easy, but the task is not as insurmountable as people might at first think. But it will never happen until Rhode Island Republicans make a decision to consistently stand for something that makes voters want to join their party for the long term and not for just an election day.

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It seems to me that the Democrats had a clear and very simple theme-'Vote for Change-Vote Democrat". The Republican Party must develop a clear theme, i.e. "Do the Right Thing" or "Vote the person not the party"

Posted by: Shawn Masterson at November 8, 2006 9:06 PM

How many people who usually vote straight Republican didn't this time for the sole reason of fragging Chafee? And how many of those failed to vote for Stenhouse because she sided with Chafee in the primary? Just a thought.

Posted by: Rhody at November 8, 2006 11:54 PM

I had mentioned this phenomenon with Andrew much earlier today, so thanks for looking into that. I don't know if it is always to the detriment to the GOP specifically, but it was enough of a factor so as to sway close races in the wrong direction. I'm not sure if it was Bush, Iraq, or any other single issue, or just a cumulative effect of a number of things, but all the vote totals seemed out of whack with what one would have expected under "normal" circumstances. But again, this wasn't a normal election season, was it?

Even though I typically do vote a straight Republican ballot, I never use the straight Republican "select all" option when I vote, for the sole reason that I prefer to think when I vote, instead of going "baaa". I individually select each candidate, occasionally leaving one or more of them blank (undervoting) or writing in a candidate. I even take the time to read the ballot questions before I vote "approve" or "reject" (yes, a rarity!)

I know for a fact, that at least in my area, straight party voting made a big difference in the outcome of several local races. I gathered some results from a particular polling place just as it closed, and as soon as I heard the "straight ticket" number (which is the first one they read-off), I knew we were going to have a very long night.

My hope is that the political atmosphere will be different in two years, where we will not only have well-qualified candidates and the resources to back them, but also fewer national issues clouding the electorate's collective judgment. What's happening 6000 miles away for most people shouldn't have an effect on a local Rep race, or tip the balance in a mayoral election (of course, if you believe in the Butterfly Effect, it certainly can).

I also think that all the publicity and heaps of money thrown about regarding the casino issue, even though it went down in flames, had the effect of bolstering turnout and energizing different sides on the issue -- by targeting people who normally don't vote, or who were "recruited" as single issue voters -- so as to be detrimental to our folks, even though they were generally the "better" candidates (a perfect example would be Allan Fung, if it doesn't end up going our way). For once, Linc Chafee was right about something, it was a "perfect storm." However, it was never an inevitable one.

Posted by: Will at November 9, 2006 12:35 AM

"How many people who usually vote straight Republican ..."

Don't know about this time. But in 2004, 14,000 Republicans "pulled" the Republican lever.

Posted by: SusanD at November 9, 2006 6:56 AM

If the issue was straight democrat ticket voting Carcieri would have lost. Obviously people made the CHOICE to vote for Whitehouse and then Carcieri. That's what the results tell me. The real problem for Republicans is that the electorate prefer a party that has values close to their own. It's why the Republicans are successful in the South and not here. For Republicans to be successful here, they need to understand the idea of the independent man. Forget the social issues and being the tough guys standing in the bedroom door like a George Wallace at the schoolhouse. ONLY TALK ECONOMICS, NO TAXES and you'll get the votes. Talk all the bull about who sleeps with who, who wears condoms, any of the really personal choice issues and in New England you'll be DEAD on ARRIVAL. Carcieri's near defeat at the hands of a Fogarty, the loss of every Republican entered race should tell you that.

Posted by: gregjared at November 9, 2006 7:45 AM

>>The real problem for Republicans is that the electorate prefer a party that has values close to their own. It's why the Republicans are successful in the South and not here.

For most Rhode Islanders, Republican values are their own.

The RI Democratic Party is made up of a "devil's pact" between two wings: the labor union/ corruption wing (those who leverage government power strictly for their own enrichment) and the welfare wing (i.e., the "East Side" liberals), whose mission in life is to leverage government power to redistribute wealth from those who earn it to those who don't.

The former are essentially apolitical as to social values, and the latter are way out of step with the social values of the average Rhode Islander.

Those two special interests have taken over the Democratic Party, here and nationally. So while it spouts "working families" it is all spin.

For example, how can one reconcile the Democratic Party's subservience to the teachers unions to the interests of public school dependent "working families" desire to have a quality education for their children?

The problem is, the hierarchy of the RIGOP is essentially composed of "fellow travelers" of the above. You've got the Traficante-Levesque type "Republicans" that are themselves of the union-corruption ilk, and the Chafee type "Republicans" that are of the welfare ilk.

The average Rhode Island "working family" wants a fair shake, a good education for their children, and an environment offering "good jobs" (which in turn requires a positive business climate).

The RI Democratic Party is against all of those, as is the leadership of the RIGOP (Carcieri excepted).

The national Republican Party is aligned with the interests of Rhode Island's "working families."

If the RIGOP can be aligned with the National GOP (which in turned needs some realignment to bring it into line with the Republican base), the GOP can and should be the Party of working families in RI.

Posted by: Tom W at November 9, 2006 10:15 AM

Carcieri won because he was smart enough not to bring abortion or gay marriage into the campaign (I get the impression his wife really drives the social conservatism). But now that he no longer has to worry about re-election, he may be more willing to touch those third rails. The impact the gay marriage debate will have on the House leadership will be fun to watch - does Murphy purge Fox?

Posted by: Rhody at November 9, 2006 11:53 AM

The Board of Elections does in fact track straight party voters and that data is available for '04, '02, etc... on their website in the mass download of precinct level information. Im assuming we will have this data as well when the BoE posts this data for '06.

Posted by: RI Populist at November 9, 2006 11:59 AM

the numbers are there, but they haven't been officially released yet

straight-ticket GOP: ~18,000
straight-ticket Dem: ~61,000

Posted by: johnb at November 9, 2006 4:15 PM

"If the issue was straight democrat ticket voting Carcieri would have lost."

I disagree with this, only due to the way it was worded. Carcieri was fortunate that his personal appeal, as well as the desire by the electorate to counter the General Assembly with more than a rubber stamp was enough to save him. He won in spite of straight ticket voting -- barely. I never said it was the sole factor. What I said was that it was enough of a factor, so as to make a difference in the races, which under other circumstances, would have been close in the other direction (Stenhouse, Fung, and numerous Rep races). Even if straight ticket voting was only say 6-8% higher than usual, it was enough to tip the balance in a number of races around the state.

Posted by: Will at November 10, 2006 12:50 AM
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