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April 18, 2014

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No lessons emerge from not-so-special election

President Barack Obama should not bother coming to Nevada. Rep. Shelley Berkley might as well start drafting her concession speech now. Nevada Democrats on the ballot here in 2012 are an endangered species.

That was the message reverberating across the country in the wake of new Rep. Mark Amodei’s smashing special election victory Tuesday — a frothing hysteria from rabid Republicans and echoed (with only slightly less mouth-foaming) by those with foggy telescopes in the capital media.

This is the kind of instapunditry by partisans and others that simply fills a purpose or space, full of sound and fury and signifying you-know-what. It is noise and nothing more, and easily disproven by math and common sense.

Before I show that proof, it must be said that it is no news flash that Democrats are in real jeopardy here and elsewhere, up and down the ticket. President Obama’s plummeting approval ratings in almost every state, including in Nevada where he won by 12 percentage points in ’08, surely are causing a run on rabbit’s feet in Democratic circles. In Nevada, with the president’s numbers almost upside-down, with a relatively strong GOP Senate candidate (Dean Heller) and with a Republican Party reinvigorated by an engaged governor (Brian Sandoval), we didn’t need Amodei’s victory to signal the Democrats that black clouds are forming.

So the Republican’s victory in a seat never held by a Democrat told us exactly nothing we didn’t already know. Instead, it misled many. I hardly know where to begin.

Some of politics is inside baseball, a hodgepodge of statistics, strategies and silliness unintelligible to most normal human beings. But some is just common sense.

So I distill: A House special election in a district dominated by Republicans (30,000 more voters than the Democrats) with only 33 percent turnout has no correlation to a general election 14 months hence where the turnout will be 80 percent, and two-thirds of the state that did not participate Tuesday, where Democrats dominate (95,000 more voters than Republicans), will be highly motivated to do so.

Democrats were not simply on the sidelines during Treasurer Kate Marshall’s quixotic bid against Amodei, they never came out of the locker room. Oh, they had high hopes that a divided Republican electorate, with multiple GOP candidates running, might split the vote. So the Harry Reid Party — er, the Democratic Party — cleared the field for Marshall. But on July 5, when the state Supreme Court decided the state party committees would nominate one candidate, this race was effectively over.

The Democrats kept their dream alive for a few weeks, with some polling data showing the race potentially close. But a follow-up survey showed the race could not be won, and as the National Republican Congressional Committee started pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-Marshall TV ads, the Democrats decided to save their resources for another year. Next year.

As one key Democratic operative told me, “When you know a candidate is 10 points (or more) behind, you can’t justify spending millions of dollars when you know voters just aren’t paying attention and there are sizeable odds are against you.”

So what happened Tuesday is that only the most inveterate voters turned out — Republicans salivating to elect Amodei and Democrats not totally turned off by Marshall’s lame imitation of a Republican. These voters (all 129,603 of them) will turn out again in November 2012. But so will about 750,000 folks who did not vote in this election — and an overwhelming majority of those are Democrats.

There is no analogy between the electorate that turned out Tuesday and the one that will turn out a year from November. None.

Even in Amodei’s district — and the new lines have yet to be drawn — turnout will be dramatically different because it is a presidential year. In 2008, CD2 turnout was 77 percent. To replicate the overwhelming turnout advantage the Republicans had Tuesday in a presidential general election, they essentially would have to deport most of the state’s Democrats to California. (Don’t give Sandoval any ideas; I’m still not sure of his immigration positions.)

Democrats also retain a 65,000 voter edge and the Reid, er, Democratic machine, will still far surpass whatever Sandoval & Co. can drum up. Democrats here may well be in grave trouble next year, but it’s way too early too tell.

So let’s flip it for the sake of the GOP’s argument: What if it had been Berkley who had become a senator and her overwhelmingly Democratic district had a special election? The Republicans would barely have put up a fight and Steven Horsford, Dina Titus or Ruben Kihuen would now be a congressman, with some Democrats boasting this augured well for Obama in 2012.

How silly would that be? No sillier than what the Republicans are saying now.

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  1. You'll never get on FOX with truth like this Jon