Identifying and analyzing emerging trends in campaigns and elections.

Cochran Victory Reverses History

In Election Analysis, Senate on June 26, 2014 at 10:09 am

Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R) amazing comeback victory in Tuesday’s run-off election in Mississippi changed political voting history in three ways.

First, the Cochran campaign and their allies increased the number of voters who participated in the nomination process, something not thought practically possible. In the June 3 primary, 313,483 people voted in the Republican senatorial primary. On Tuesday, 376,323 ballots were cast, meaning a minimum of 62,840 individuals who did not vote in the primary participated in the run-off election. Considering that run-off voter turnout typically decreases by approximately 25 percent, an increase of 20 percent is simply unfathomable. Yet, it happened, and the Cochran team deserves a great deal of credit for changing a well established political fact – that turnout always decreases in a run-off contest.

Strategically, from a related messaging perspective, the campaign and its allies began stressing Cochran’s accomplishments for the state, particularly in terms of how people have benefited from the projects and government money that has been appropriated to Mississippi during Cochran’s long tenure in Congress. The Chamber of Commerce echoed this message, even airing an ad featuring legendary football quarterback Brett Favre (above) – now being described as a political “Hail Mary pass” – who touted what the senator has done for Mississippians like him. The ad ends with Favre asking the viewer to join with him and, “Stand with Thad.”

Second, in run-off politics, as was again shown in the Ralph Hall run-off result in TX-4 at the end of May, an incumbent failing to win the primary outright will surely lose the secondary vote. Cochran again reversed political history here because he not only didn’t achieve majority status, he failed to even place first. In the end, realtor Tom Carey who captured just 4,789 primary votes, changed the outcome of this race. His 1.6 percent of the vote denied leading opponent Chris McDaniel the opportunity of clinching the race, and a second chance opened the door for Cochran’s comeback.

Third, the Cochran campaign made an unusual move – one that proved successful in unprecedented form – of attempting to convince large pockets of African Americans to vote in the Republican run-off in order to help Cochran defeat a Tea Party insurgence that the campaign claimed McDaniel represents. The post-election stats show that their efforts paid dividends, as an estimated 10,000-plus Democratic voters participated in the Republican run-off. Additionally, overlaying a map of Cochran’s counties where his vote totals increased the most, is a virtual carbon copy of the county map depicting the largest black population counties, largely those along the Mississippi delta region that comprises a large portion of the 2nd Congressional District (Rep. Bennie Thompson-D).

This third campaign-changing point is why the polling proved so flawed. No less than three post-primary surveys showed McDaniel holding a clear lead, anywhere from three to six points. The surprising voter participation increase explains why the pollsters mis-forecast the total turnout, which led to producing bogus results.

Additionally, the Cochran campaign aggressively put people back in the precincts, knocking on an estimated 50,000 doors, which clearly made a difference. Republican campaigns are typically turning away from involving door-to-door work in favor of more money and television, and the Cochran effort again proved that grassroots message delivery can still be a race-changing tactic.

In all, Sen. Cochran’s comeback victory is an extraordinary result, and should be remembered as one of the most unlikely achievements in the modern political era.

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