Monday, February 25, 2008

Building a Democratic Kent County

For many years people figured that the local Democratic Party had no chance of gaining a majority. Located in a historically Republican county, the Democrats were marginalized at the local level, often sporting a small minority of county commissioners. Party leaders in Lansing ignored local activists, sending campaign dollars and ground support to Democratic strongholds election after election, leaving locals to lead Get Out the Vote (GOTV) efforts on their own.

If you think this opening paragraph is about Kent County, you are wrong. It was Oakland County Democratic Party that long met the conditions listed above, and was considered the whipping boy of the arrogant Oakland County Republican machine. Yet, over the past ten years the Oakland County Democratic Party has become a reborn organization, and in the past election nearly grabbed a majority of County Commissioners on the Oakland County Board, with the Republicans left holding a narrow thirteen to twelve vote edge. Voters in Oakland County have become increasingly Democratic over the past few years, almost electing a Democratic state senator, and electing two Democrats to seats long held by the GOP.

Oakland County offers an example to Democrats in Kent County who have long been on the outside looking in at the local level. To be sure, Democrats have experienced local success over the past few years, gaining a state house seat in a hotly contested election in 2006, and could possibly run a strong challenger in 2010 for State Senator Bill Hardiman’s open seat. The Kent Democrats also did well in 2006 on the county level, gaining Grand Rapids-based seats that had long been areas of Republican support. With the addition of these two members, the Democratic Party controlled five of the nineteen Kent County Commission seats. The Democratic minority, while small, controls five of the seven seats that represent portions of Grand Rapids.

I can think of few things more important to the Kent County Democratic Party than adding to its numbers on the Kent County Board of Commissioners over the next two elections. Local races provide Democrats with a chance to hone their campaign skills, gain valuable governing experience, and also provides the party with a farm system that ensures a reserve of future leadership. This is extremely important in an era of term limited government that requires strong new candidates every six years to replace legislators who have just finished learning necessary skills of governance.

Building the Kent County Democratic Party also requires expanding our party. While there is a Democratic majority in Grand Rapids, there have been few competitive Democratic campaigns in the surrounding suburbs. However, it is these sort of districts, whether on the state of local level, that our party needs to carry to ensure that our state gets a party that governs to build a long-term economic future for our state, rather than a party that runs on taxes cuts regardless of how stretched our educational services or battered our roads may be. Hence, it is on the local level that the Kent County Democratic Party can start establish a framework for creating a majority. Creating this majority requires capturing suburban seats that have long been assumed as safe Republican districts.

I pulled up the last three election cycles (2002, 2004, and 2006) that feature country commission races since the last redistricting in 2000. Wwhile the results don’t appear that pretty in 2002, they look better by the year.

The total Democratic vote has increased enormously over the past four years (from 59,657 in 2002 to 91,291 in 2006). While this vote increase is due in part to Democratic gains in Grand Rapids, the percentage of the Democratic vote total coming from Grand Rapids has remained at a constant 36%. Democratic gains have been likewise constant in the first-ring suburbs surrounding Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Township, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming).

Suburban Strategy

As Myron Orfield noted in his seminal 2002 work American Metropolitics, many suburban communities are experiencing many of the social and economic problems once considered to be reserved to central cities. Orfield argues that a savvy political party would push for a regional agenda that creates a stronger regional economy that helps restore the fiscal health of first-ring suburbs.

It is time for the Kent County Democratic Party to push a regional agenda that unites the interests of suburban voters in communities such as Wyoming with the concerns of central city voters in Grand Rapids. Neither Wyoming or Grand Rapids have been immune to Michigan’s economic woes, although the impact of manufacturing job losses appears to have impacted Wyoming’s tax base to a greater extent than Grand Rapids. Both communities are also seeking long-term solutions to preserving existing infrastructure while continuing economic and community development programs.

The Kent County Democratic Party should push a regionalist agenda of efficient county government to the voters over the next two election cycles. A regionalist Democratic agenda should pursue regional economic planning to ensure that Kent County remains a bright spot in Michigan’s economy, and also seek regional environmental strategies that limit sprawl and preserve our rich farmland. While seeking to hold their five current seats, the party should also consider targeting the following districts for potential pickups:

1. District 8 (Wyoming). This district, long represented by Jack Boelema, has becoming increasingly Democratic over the past four years. While Boelema received 61% of the popular vote in 2002, he was held to 57% in 2004, and fell to 54% in 2006. District 8 covers Wyoming’s commercial core (28th Street and Division Ave) that have experienced an economic downturn over the past few years. A strong Democratic candidate should be able win this district, but the investment of time and energy needed to take this district would be comparable to what Brandon Dillion invested in his 2006 race to capture District 18.

2. District 12 (Wyoming and Kentwood). Represented by long-term member Harold Mast, District 12 has experienced economic tensions similar to District 8. Many manufacturers have left this district (Steelcase to name one), and there has been a sharp increase in poverty races in the three census tracts that overlap with District 12. Mast won 64% of the vote in 2002 and 59% in 2004, but fell to 55% in 2006. As in District 8, a strong Democratic candidate would need to map a careful campaign strategy that targets precincts favorable to the new Democratic regionalist agenda.

3. District 19 (Grand Rapids). Nadine Klein represents the southern suburban neighborhoods of Grand Rapids in District 19. Since besting Ken Kuipers in 2004, Klein has won sizable majorities, although her vote percentage fell from 60% in 2004 to 57% in 2006. A number of precincts within this district have been plagued by foreclosure problems in the past few years, and many voters are proven ticket splitters, backing Democrat Robert Dean for the State House seat while voting for Klein. A tough district to crack, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

4. District 13 (Kentwood) This district is the last of the suburban districts for the Democrats to target in 2008. While a Democratic candidate would face an uphill battle (Vander Moelen received 59% of the vote in 2006), one should also note that there has not been a strong Democratic campaign run here in a long time. A committed candidate should give this seat at least two tries.

Party Building

While the road to a Democratic majority in Kent County might seem far fetched, the work to create such a possibility needs to begin today. Every precinct in Kent County should have a Democratic captain, and the county party should make sure that voting lists (such as provided by Mark Gerbner) are accurate. Local campaigns should be built to work with state races and the national campaigns to ensure that voters get contacted. With hard work, diligent efforts, and a sustained Democratic message, the Kent County Democrats could end up looking a lot like their compatriots in Oakland County.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ohio: The Heart of it All

As many of you know, I love Ohio. Having lived in Columbus from 2002-2003, I got to enjoy life in the biggest small town that allowed for a lot of walking, and plenty of urban exploring.

I also appreciate Ohio’s unique political makeup. I can only think of two states (Missouri and Virginia) that have the same diverse political cultures that make one state in reality five different states. While Ohio’s sharp political divisions are not as likely to be displayed in the Democratic Primary on March 4, the state will still be a challenge for any campaign to gain victory. Just ask John Kerry.

Since people always ask me who going to win state X or state Y, I figured it might be good to offer an analysis of Ohio’s upcoming Democratic Primary. Full disclosure note now: I’m a Barak Obama supporter, so take this analysis as you will, although I have tried to be open minded to a Hillary Clinton victory in this analysis, and there are areas of the state where she will do very well on March 4.

Let’s begin!

The Order of Battle

Both campaigns want this state. For Obama, a victory here can put to rest Clinton’s argument that he can not win any big states, and also provide continual momentum for his campaign. From what little I know, it sounds like Vermont and Rhode Island will also likely go for Obama on March 4, leaving Texas as the final disputed prize on this day. If Obama wins Ohio, he will likely win the nomination, and laid the groundwork for an effective Ohio Get Out the Vote (GOTV) campaign for the fall.

A victory in Ohio helps keep Clinton in the primary delegate hunt. It is likely the Clinton will lose all three primaries today, and the primaries a week later in Hawaii and Wisconsin are not looking very promising either. Hence, a victory in Ohio could provide a big uplift for her campaign, and give her momentum for the elections later in March and April. Finally, a victory in Ohio could help sooth worried campaign donors and committed super delegates.

Delegate Breakdown

Ohio brings 161 delegates to the Democratic Convention in Denver. Of these, 20 are super delegates, whom current favor Clinton by a 2-0 margin (Ted Strickland and Representative Stephanie Jones). In the end of January the Buckeye State Blog helpfully calculated that Clinton has 6 super delegates leaning her way, while Obama has 3 moving towards his camp, giving a Clinton a margin of 8 to 3, with 10 delegates (wisely) remaining undecided.

The remaining 141 delegates are allocated into two groups. 92 delegates are split among Ohio’s 18 Congressional Districts and are awarded proportionally. A list of the districts with the number of delegates awarded to each is provided below. A helpful map shows readers why some congressional districts get more delegates than others; it largely depends on the Democratic vote from each district (for detailed district maps see this helpful site). Thus, districts 4 and 5, which are strongly Republican, get fewer delegates than districts 11 and 17, which are Democratic strongholds.

Each campaign will pay special attention to districts with odd numbers of delegates, as it is easier to gain an extra delegate. For exam, for Clinton to win three delegates in the First Congressional District (a district that has four delegates), she would need to have at least 62.5% of the total vote. In contrast, for Obama to win 3 of 5 delegates for the Third Congressional District, he would simply need a majority. There are six Congressional Districts that have odd numbers of delegates (Districts 3, 6, 12, 16, 17, and 18), and expect the campaigns to push hard for winning the majority of the vote to get the extra delegate. That said, expect Obama to push especially hard to win the 11th Congressional District. Although it has an even number of delegates (8), this is an African American majority district that could provide large margins for him. To get 5 of 8 delegates, Obama would need to get 56.2% of the vote; something that is entirely doable. The remaining 49 delegates are given based on the statewide popular vote total. The list below shows the number of delegates that correspond to a popular vote percentage.

21 delegates for 42.8%
22 delegates for 44.8%
23 delegates for 46.9%
24 delegates for 48.9%
25 delegates for 51.0%
26 delegates for 53.0%
27 delegates for 55.1%
28 delegates for 57.1%
29 delegates for 59.1%

As you can see, this will be a closely fought race. Let’s see how things breakdown.

By District (92 total delegates)

CD 1 – 4 (Cincinnati). This is a district that Obama will do well in, given that it includes much of Cincinnati and some outlying suburbs. 27.5% of this swing district’s population is African-American, and this figure will only be greater for the Democratic Primary on March 4. However, nothing suggests that Obama is going to get over 62.5% of the vote here, hence a 2-2 split is in order.

CD 2 – 4 (Cincinnati suburbs and rural Ohio River counties). Represented by Mean Jean Schmidt, this district has a low African American population, although almost 40% of district residents have a BA or a graduate degree. Hillary should win this district, but not by a large margin, resulting in another 2-2 split.

CD 3 – 5 (Clinton, Highland, and Montgomery Counties, with a portion of Warren County. Includes the city of Dayton). This district is one that will likely go for Obama, as Dayton has a sizable African-American population, and also includes a sizeable number of college students. Obama wins 3-2.

CD 4 – 4 (central rural Ohio). This very Republican district will likely provide an even split between the two candidates, although Hillary is likely to win a small majority. 2-2 split.

CD 5 – 4 (northwest rural Ohio). This district, although rural and Republican, has a strong Democratic base in Bowling Green, home of the Bowling Green State University. Obama will win this district, although it is unlikely that he’ll be able to pull out an extra delegate. 2-2 split.

CD 6 – 5 (rural Ohio River counties). This district was Ted Strickland’s Congressional base, and if there is any place where the popular governor can use his clout, this is the place. The district is filled with lower-income white women that Hillary desperately needs to turn out to win Ohio. If Hillary cannot win this district, she is not having a great night. For now I am calling this 3-2 for Hillary.

CD 7 – 4 (southern rural Ohio counties and a portion of Dayton). This district is rural, but also includes a small urban section. While I would not be surprised to see Hillary win this district, it will be another 2-2 split.

CD 8 – 4 (southwestern rural Ohio). Ohio has a number of rural districts that would be considered strong Republican seats in a general election. However, in this Democratic Primary, it remains to be seen how the voters will turn out. Obama has done an excellent job attracting rural voters in caucus states, and rural Ohio is much closer to the many states that Obama won on February 5 than anything that Hillary has done well in. The results in Wisconsin’s rural districts on February 19 might be some indication of how Ohio’s will move. Regardless, this district will be a 2-2 split, with Obama pulling a small majority.

CD 9 – 6 (Toledo & suburbs, rural Lake Eric counties). If Hillary has any district besides CD-6 that she must win, this is a likely candidate. This district has a working-class makeup that has a tiny number of college students. Toledo has a sizable number of African American voters, which might make it hard for Clinton to get over 58% of the vote. If Obama comes close to getting 58% in this district on March 4, expect a Hillary withdrawal speech within the next week. 3-3 split.

CD 10 – 6 (Cleveland suburbs). This district, represented by the Kerber Elf (Dennis Kucinich) is another chance for Hillary to pull a win in the suburbs of Cleveland. However, Obama could likewise pull out a victory. Regardless, it may be hard for either candidate to get 58% of the vote. 3-3 split

CD 11 – 8 (Cleveland and eastern suburbs). This African American majority district (56%) should be the foundation upon which Obama builds a victory in Ohio. Clinton may be able to limit Obama to getting a 5-3 lead here if she is able to push economic issues, especially mortgage foreclosure problems dominating metro Cleveland. If it is a good night for Obama, he’s pull out a 6-2 delegate win. Chances are he’ll get a 5-3 win, and add to his popular vote total.

CD 12 – 5 (northeast Columbus, exburban Delaware and Licking counties). Franklin County provides the overwhelming majority of Democratic votes here, and it is where Mike Coleman’s endorsement and GOTV efforts could be helpful for an Obama victory and a 3-2 delegate majority.

CD 13 – 6 (Cleveland and Akron suburbs). Filled with college students and voters with economic concerns. Expect an Obama and Clinton split 3-3.

CD 14 – 6 (northeast Ohio). Old Western Reserve portion of Ohio, with plenty of working-class Democrats. However, it is unlikely for Hillary to get 58% of the vote here. Another 3-3 split.

CD 15 – 4 (Columbus and suburbs). This district has a large number of Ohio State University students, and is slowly becoming more Democratic. However, it is unlikely that either candidate will get 62% of the vote. 2-2 split.

CD 16 – 5 (Canton and rural counties). This district should be one that Hillary does well in. Whether her ground game is up to the challenge is another question. 3-2 Clinton.

CD 17 – 7 (Youngstown and Warren). A struggling working-class district that should be a place where Clinton should be able to gain a victory, although her support will not likely surpass 64% for an additional delegate. A 4-3 Clinton majority.

CD 18 – 5 (rural south-central district). This rural district is dotted with small towns and would be expected to go for Clinton. However this district is dominated by Athens County, home of Ohio University, which will likely provide a dominating Obama majority. 3-2 majority for Obama.

District delegate totals: 47 Obama, 45 Clinton

Statewide total:

With a close delegate total, you can expect the popular vote to likewise be neck and neck. Obama needs to roll up large popular vote majorities in the state’s three majority cities (Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland) that have sizable African American populations, and also pull out large majorities in college towns such as Bowling Green, Athens, and Kent. Clinton needs to get a large number of votes in Toledo, Cleveland suburbs, and in the Ohio River counties that Ted Strickland will be pushing hard to win for her. I expect that Obama’s momentum from earlier in February will help increase his vote totals in Ohio. In most states during this primary season, Obama has done much better when he is able to increase his voter recognition numbers, and it would not be surprising if Ohio followed this pattern. Clinton will be under intense pressure to get a big win here, especially if she loses primaries on February 12 and 19.

In the end, I predict an Obama victory with 50.5% of the total vote, while Clinton gets 47%, and 2.5% vote for other candidates. Obama will thus get 25 delegates, while Clinton gets 24. A narrow victory for Obama, and intense pressure for Clinton to drop out from the race should be the storyline on the night of March 4.

Total pledge delegates awarded on March 4:

Obama 72

Clinton 69