Last week I promised to figure out what went wrong in the Mark Pera-Dan Lipinski race. I've been delayed in that assessment for two big reasons -- the elections and work finishing up my book, Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in the Digital Era which I must deliver to Penguin on March 20th.
However, my book writing and my efforts to figure out what went wrong in Illinois crossed paths, as I was working on a case study dealing with Rep. Carol Shea-Porter's unlikely victories in both the primary and general election in 2006.
On September 13, Shea-Porter rocked the political world by winning her primary by a 54-35 margin despite the fiercest efforts of the party establishment. She had been outspent $192,558 to $19,023 in the primary, yet had been the beneficiary of record low turnout that allowed her small grassroots army to swamp Craig’s voters.
The Jim Webb-Harris Miller primary battle in Virginia in 2006 also featured dismal turnout, around two percent if I remember correctly. So could it be that our nascent movement can only able to win tough primary races in low-turnout affairs, in which low-information voters are kept away from the polls and only the most informed and engaged participate?
There may be something there. The Pera campaign worked to identify the most likely voters and persuade them to back his campaign. However, the presidential race and Obama's presence on the ticket spurred massive turnout and a flood of new voters that had not been previously identified. And faced with an unknown race on the ballot, they went with the safety of the incumbent.
But is that a perfect rule? The 2006 Montana primary between Jon Tester and John Morrison had extremely high turnout, as did the primary between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont in Connecticut. Then again, Tester had enough money to advertise in a state that was cheap to advertise in, unlike Webb's Virginia or Pera's Chicago media market. And Lamont had plenty of money to get out his own message. And in both those cases, those primaries were the top-of-the-ticket contests. Voters turned out precisely to vote for Tester and Lamont, unlike last Tuesday's voters which turned out to vote for Obama.
So my tentative lesson in all of this is that we're most effective in races where we can get two out of the following three:
- we're the main attraction on the ballot,
- we have the money to get out our message (duh), and
- turnout remains low.
So what does that say about today's primary in Maryland between netroots hero Donna Edwards and Al Wynn?
It's an expensive media market, the main attraction is the presidential primary, and turnout will likely be near record highs. If Donna Edwards wins -- and observers on the ground are gung-ho that she can pull it off -- she will have done so by bucking the lessons from those previous primaries. In other words, it'll be a tough task.
But no one ever said that taking on entrenched and corrupt machine politicians would ever be easy.