Saturday, December 01, 2018

The Supervisor Special And The "Farm Vote"

The field is set in the sprint to the December 18 supervisor special election as Democrat Royceann Porter faces off against Phil Hemingway, the Republican who just lost the general election to Pat Heiden and Janelle Rettig.

The campaign's biggest controversy to date, though, has come from former Democratic supervisor Pat Harney, who tried for the nomination at the November 20 Democratic convention only to lose to Porter 109-42.

It was clear even before November 20 that there was no base in that convention, made up of people who were motivated by governor candidates, party offices, and platform planks to go out to last February's caucuses in a blizzard, for a rural moderate candidate. But the winner still has to carry the election itself, and Johnson County Dems still have not quite recovered from the shock defeat in the March 2013 special election.

In his speeches to the convention, Harney argued that rural voters felt neglected and would not support another Iowa City progressive candidate. Porter's race wasn't QUITE mentioned (she would be our first black supervisor) but it was certainly a strong subtext.

Left unasked in a brief convention Q & A was the question of whether the losing candidate would back the winner. And in the last few days, remarks have surfaced on line and on radio that Harney has a Hemingway sign on his property (a prominent spot on Highway 1). When asked by the Press-Citizen, Harney said the sign was not his but declined to say who he would vote for.

I am disappointed in Pat and I am in no way defending him for not clearly and immediately endorsing Porter. But Harney was very successful in winning elections in this county for a very long time - four contested primaries and four general elections, the convention defeat is his only loss - and in his unfortunate and misdirected convention speech he made a point.

There is a "Farm Vote" constituency in Johnson County. Not all rural voters are part of it, and  it includes some old timers in town, but "Farm Vote" is the best shorthand label I have.  These voters will not support a progressive candidate for supervisor - that office in particular more than others.

It's made up of Democrats who will back a Tom Harkin or a Tom Miller, but maybe not a Hillary Clinton or a Bruce Braley. It's made up of sophisticated local Republicans more motivated by business than ideology. It's made up of independents who care more about who is in the courthouse than in the White House.

This vote was buried (but, as you'll see, still measurable) in the high general election turnout last month, and Hemingway lost badly. But now Democrats need to outnumber them in a more challenging situation, without months of buildup, without statewide and national attention to voting, with people busy or out of town.

The Farm Vote has a sense that the Board of Supervisors should "belong" to them and people like them, because for more than a century it did, in the same way that the Iowa City council "belonged" to the Chamber of Commerce for decades until the Core Four win in 2015. There wasn't a single urban progressive supervisor until Joe Bolkcom in 1992, and the Board didn't get a solid liberal majority until after the 2014 election.

The Farm Vote is well organized year round, election season or not, though a natural social network of churches and clubs and coffee drinking sessions. The word gets through their grapevines. These people WILL vote and they will NOT vote for Royceann Porter.

If you look back at supervisor elections over the past 25 years you see a very strong pattern of how big the Farm Vote is. You can go back to Harney's margin over Rod Sullivan in the 2004 general, you can go back as far as Charlie Duffy's margin over Bolkcom in the 1992 general election (those were vote for three contests), and it's almost the same. 

The "Farm Vote"

Election Measure Total
1992 general Duffy minus Bolkcom 3802
1994 special Sehr total (win) 4291
2000 general Neuzil minus Thompson 3376
2000 general Smalley minus Brown 3761
2004 general Harney minus Sullivan 4435
2008 general Harney minus Sullivan 4273
2010 special Cardella total (loss) 3764
2012 general Neuzil minus Sullivan 2788
2013 special Etheredge total (win) 3142
2018 general Heiden minus Rettig 3086

You can even go back to which two Democrats and one Republican they were backing in the 2000 general election and which one Democrat and one dropped-out-but-still-on-the-ballot  Republican they were not - and the two measures almost exactly line up which is some pretty sophisticated voting behavior.

It doesn't matter whether the candidate was personally conservative or rural (Pat Heiden is neither), but it's a measure of perception and of who this constituency was supporting and opposing.

As you see, it's also almost exactly the same number of people in presidential elections and in low turnout specials, whether the stakes are victory itself or just bragging rights. It's a remarkably consistent pattern across 25 years of elections.

Note that Cardella got more votes in her losing race than Etheredge got in his win. Or, put another way, the regular Democrats outnumbered the Farm Vote in January 2010 and did not in March 2013. I'm confident Porter and the Democrats can outnumber the Farm Vote - but we need to work, and now you know just what needs to happen.