April 16, 2008
An early overview of the county races

Now that we know what all of the countywide race matchups will be, I thought I'd take a little time to look at the individual races for the non-judicial offices that will be on the ballot this November. It's a fascinating mix, with differing candidate styles and strengths, and it should produce some of the most compelling action we've seen at this level in a long time.

Before I get to that, I want to set the parameters for these analyses. It is certainly possible that due to the national races, local issues, demographic trends, and other macro factors that come November 5 we'll wake up and discover that one party or the other has dominated, winning most if not all of the races. That will make for some good post-mortem discussions, but it's not very interesting to contemplate here. I therefore intend to assume that the Republicans and Democrats will go into Election Day evenly matched, with every race up for grabs and no one having an advantage that cannot be overcome by candidate quality, fundraising, or other factors. The point from there is to try and figure out how those factors can tip a race one way or the other.

Making that assumption means that I'm not going to specifically consider the effect of the Presidential race on the downballot contests. Obviously, the top of the ticket will have a big impact, but the factors involved are highly subjective at this point. Who will or won't inspire voters to turn out, what will the dominant issues be, and so on, is more a matter of faith than anything else. Again, for the purposes of trying to isolate the variables that are under the control of the individual candidates, I'm going to assume that this is all a wash, and that in the end whether one party or the other is lifted up or dragged down, we wind up in that 50/50 situation.

The next assumption I'm making is that even in the lower-profile races, the candidates themselves do matter. That may seem obvious enough, but I hear so much talk about the national races driving the downballot ones that I think this concept can get lost. Take a look at this chart of contested judicial races in 2004:

Republican Votes Democrat Votes
McCorkle 545,012 Nguyen 460,283
Carter 539,323 Roll 463,658
Keyes 538,788 Sharp 478,352
Godwin 538,397 Voigt 466,222
Rains 538,380 Ritchie 465,620
Anderson 533,659 Ribnik 470,979
Burke 532,172 Mosier 474,115
McCally 524,198 Stone 482,385

Everyone agrees that judicial races are decided by the prevailing partisan preferences, as judicial candidates seldom have the money to run their own distinctive races. Yet even here, the number of votes varies. The difference in winning margin from McCorkle/Nguyen to McCally/Stone is 43,000 votes, or about four percent of the ballots cast. That wasn't enough to make a difference in a year where the Presidential vote went 55/45 for the GOP, but in a 50/50 year, it most definitely would matter. Under such conditions, a slight advantage for a candidate even among a small subgroup of voters - say, lawyers who try cases in these judges' courtrooms - could be decisive.

The point I'm making is that even in low-profile races, candidates matter. In the non-judicial races, where especially this year we should expect that the contenders will have money and will do advertising and other forms of voter outreach, they will matter more. Looking again and 2004, the three contested non-judicial races had even more variability in the final results:

Republican Votes Democrat Votes
Rosenthal 565,492 McKamie 460,671
Thomas 568,899 Clark 457,228
Bettencourt 607,085 Webb 434,101

Bettencourt's winning margin was 58,000 votes more than Rosenthal's. That was due in part to there being a lesser undervote in his race - about 4.7%, compared to 6.1% in the DA and Sheriff's races. In other words, Bettencourt gained votes from folks who skipped those races as well as from folks who voted Democratic in them. If that's not a measure of candidate quality, I don't know what is.

So that's the groundwork I want to lay. I want to see how these races look under the assumption that the score really does start out zero to zero and that what happens from there is all up to the individuals involved. With that established, we'll try to see how these races might shake out.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2008 to Election 2008

Please prognosticate regarding Emmett v. Mincberg !

Posted by: Peter Wang on April 16, 2008 7:59 AM

Any plans to do additional podcast interviews with candidates? What about R candidates?

Posted by: Trafficnerd on April 16, 2008 7:46 PM

I will definitely be doing podcast interviews. I have historically only interviewed Dems in even-year races (with one or two exceptions) and will likely continue that, if for no better reason than there's just a lot of candidates this year, and it's gonna take a lot of time. That said, if an R approached me, I'd try to accommodate him or her.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 16, 2008 8:26 PM