Downballot Doom for Kansas Democrats?

Kansas' downballot statewide races this year present a test for the Democratic Party, as well as an interesting test of the power of incumbency. A new poll offers a preliminary answer.
by | September 21, 2010

I've been somewhat obsessed with Kansas' downballot statewide races this year because the contests present an interesting test of the power of incumbency. A new poll offers a preliminary answer.

Kansas Democrats have three incumbent statewide officeholders running for election -- but not reelection -- to office this year. Due to a variety of circumstances, Steve Six was appointed attorney general, Dennis McKinney was appointed state treasurer and Chris Biggs was appointed secretary of state. Each one is trying to win a statewide election for the first time. Democrats' hopes of having a bench of strong future electoral aspirants in Kansas depend on these three elections.

If a new poll from SurveyUSA is right, those hopes are pretty faint. Six trails his Republican opponent 50%-41%. Biggs trails 53%-36%. McKinney trails 58%-37%.

But, I (and others) have noticed that SurveyUSA has produced poll numbers that are more favorable for Republicans than just about any other pollster this cycle. Some of their U.S. House numbers indicate that Republicans will be competitive in seats that even analysts such as Charlie Cook (who is predicting that Republicans will take the House) don't see as in play.

While I hesitate to pull a number out of my head, I'll do it anyway. I'd say that SurveyUSA's results are consistent with a massive gain for Republicans in the House: maybe 70 seats? Given that, are these results showing Democrats getting swept in the Kansas statewide offices credible?

The short answer is "sure." Just because a pollster is getting more Republican friendly numbers than other firms, that doesn't mean it's wrong. It could mean it's right. Given some of the generic ballot numbers we've seen, why couldn't Republicans gain 70 seats?

But, since that's a pretty unsatisfying answer, let's dig a little bit deeper into the numbers. Even if you're not especially interested in Kansas' downballot elections (what's wrong with you?!?!?), this exercise helps crystallize the uncertainty in forecasting an election in which one party is more motivated than the other -- but more motivated to an uncertain degree.

The following chart shows both the partisan and ideological composition of the SurveyUSA poll and Kansas' actual electorate in previous election years, according to exit polling.

Kansas Turnout

Surprisingly, SurveyUSA's projected Democratic turnout is basically unchanged from 2004 and 2008, two years in which Democrats were quite enthusiastic (although not successful in Kansas). On the other hand, the decline in liberals according to SurveyUSA should not be scoffed at. When you describe the difference between 16% and 13% as "three percentage points" it sounds small, but when you describe is as "18.75%" it sounds much bigger. Still, liberals are a small enough portion of the Kansas electorate that the difference is only enough to decide an election that was quite close already.

The real difference, according to SurveyUSA, is that there are fewer moderates and more conservatives than in previous years and fewer independents and more Republicans. But, those findings raise more questions than answers, even before we get into the size of the enthusiasm gap.

Would we expect to have proportionally fewer independents show up in midterm years than in presidential years, when anyone with any interest in politics votes? Note that exit poll information for Kansas isn't available (I don't think) for 2002 or 2006, the recent midterm years. How static is party ID and ideology? Is it plausible that the people of Kansas would have become this much more conservative and this much more Republican over the last two years?

In the interest of offering something more than questions, here's a thought. The 2010 electorate, in Kansas and elsewhere, almost certainly will be somewhat more conservative than the 2008 electorate. We just don't know the degree. That means that any Republican candidate will win in 2010 who could have won with the 2008 electorate or would have run pretty much even that year.

In 2008, then-senator Obama took 52% of the moderate vote in Kansas and still lost by 15 points. The performances of McKinney with moderates (55%) and Biggs with moderates (57%) aren't good enough for them to win even with a 2008 electorate. SurveyUSA could have flubbed this sample badly and they'd still be losing.

Six (at 61% with moderates) is the more intriguing case. Kansas Democrats would have to see holding a high-profile office like attorney general as a rather glittery silver lining. But, even with this poll, I don't know enough right now to have a clear sense whether the quasi-incumbent attorney general really has a chance.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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