Friday, November 04, 2011

The Wayback Machine: History Lessons

So you're telling me there's a chance!

The last couple days I've pointed out the perils of Michelle Payne and shown that Raj Patel has a solid sustainability platform. But the reaction seems to be: maybe, but Jarrett Mitchell is the kind of candidate I want to vote for.

So today is Realpolitik day, as I don the beret to play the local version of Nate Silver. You might be saying: just because Jarrett Mitchell was way back in the primary, that doesn't mean he won't win!

Well, actually, it does.

Over the past two decades, Iowa City's October primaries have been a solid leading indicator of November election results. How could you get a better survey of the status of the field than an actual election in the same lines just 28 days earlier? All that changes is the elimination of the also-rans and one month of campaigning.

Other candidates have had leads as big as Matt Hayek's, and none had ever lost that lead in one month. And no one has ever rebounded from fourth place in October to a top two win in November. Indeed, no one has even moved up even a notch from fourth to third. The order has flipped, but the shuffling has all been within the top three.

Could it happen, in theory? Sure.

But in the past two decades, the candidate who made up the most ground in the last month was Leah Cohen in 2001. She went from 12 percent behind in October to just 58 votes short of Mike O'Donnell in November. That was with a then-unprecedented student-aimed absentee ballot drive and a well-funded campaign. 400 mailed absentees never came back, and Leah lost by 58. That still haunts me, as it should haunt any Patel supporter right now.

Jarrett Mitchell was 24 percent short of second place and ultimate victory in October, with just 14% of the vote. Leaving aside the bizarre 2009 cycle with its primary for two of three students to earn the right to lose to Terry Dickens and Susan Mims, Mitchell started the final month in the weakest position of any fourth place finisher since the city went to its current electoral system in 1975.

Still, there's a first time for everything. But there's no real world indications that Mtchell is doing what it takes to close the gap. You need more than a platform and a persona to win; you need a campaign. I've now gotten mailings and seen significant efforts from all three other at large candidates. It's Raj Patel's crew chasing the mailed absentees. It's Raj Patel who narrowed the traditional student candidate gap in the townie precincts and even WON precinct 15 on the southeast side.

I don't want to be accused of hippie bashing again; like I said I used to have long hair myself. It's a risk, but this really is the best analogy, the best combo of delusion and false hope. The folks who ignore the strategic reality on the ground and wish really, really hard for a Mitchell victory remind me of Wavy Gravy telling the Woodstock crowd, "If we think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain," while the thunder booms behind him.

Hop into the Wayback Machine with me and look at the last couple decades of primaries and November elections.

2009: The primary and general mirrored each other almost precisely. Mims and Dickens in the 70s and Shipley and Tallon in the teens.

2007: Incumbent Dee Vanderhoef was a weak fourth in the primary with 22%, 12% behind Terry Smith and 15 points behind Michael Wright. That year as this, Matt Hayek was a couple laps ahead of the field. The finishing order, and the proportions, stayed almost the same in November.

2005: This is the year people will point to, because the finishing order changed. The primary was Rick Dobyns, Amy Correia, Mike O'Donnell, Garry Klein, and in November it was Correia, O'Donnell, Dobyns, Klein. But look at Klein, who at the moment is one of Mitchell's biggest on-line backers. He stayed stagnant in fourth place: 29% in October, 30 in November.

2003: The primary eliminated a weak field and left two tiers. Bob Elliot and Dee Vanderhoef were way out front, Brandon Ross and Steve Soboroff well behind. The proportions stayed about the same in November; Soboroff climbed from 21% to 26.

2001: We talked about Cohen already. But the fourth place guy, John Robertson?  He absorbed some also-ran votes but actually ended up further behind third place Cohen despite increasing his own share from 25% in October to 35% in November.

1999: November saw the closest election in city history. Steven Kanner went from 40 votes behind Charles Major in October to TWO votes ahead in November. But fourth place finisher Tim Borchardt only went from 21% to 25.

1997: Ross Wilburn finished a respectable fourth, not a weak fourth, both times. The candidates bunched up at 3-4-5 in the primary and 2-3-4 in November. But Wilburn was far, far closer to being in the money in October than Mitchell.

1995: Three candidates clustered near the top in both elections: Dee Vanderhoef, Karen Kubby and Howie Vernon. Julianna Johnston was well back in fourth both times.

1993: Clyde Guillaume was a mediocre fourth both times.
Before that, there's a ten year gap between city-wide primaries.

So two decades, and not even one remotely close example that makes a credible case that Mitchell can close the gap. There are multiple examples that show a strong third-place finisher in October, like Raj Patel, can change the finishing order and win in November.

If all you care about is sending a message, and your message is worth giving Mid-American a seat on the city council, sure. You can Vote For Only Jarrett Mitchell. If we think really hard, maybe we can stop this Payne.

But the truth is, Jarrett Mitchell is not going to be on the city council. And Matt Hayek is going to be on the council. If you care about who IS on the council, you're choosing between Raj Patel and Michelle Payne. And opting out of that choice by bullet voting for Mitchell helps Payne.

As I looked back over the last two decades, I was struck. There's never been a cycle where the strategic decision mattered so much. Maybe you're not ready to vote FOR Raj Patel. Then at least cast an effective, winnable vote AGAINST Payne, and marking Patel is the only way to do that.

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