Dr. John T. Spence on His Kentucky Senate Race Research

The following is from an interview with Dr. John T. Spence, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Thomas More College. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Cincinnati with focuses in American Government and political behavior, among other things. Before joining Thomas More, Dr. Spence was a Visiting Professor of American Government at Xavier University. Dr. Spence is currently conducting research pertaining to the Senate race, a study of whether there is a bias in how the race is presented through newspaper coverage.

1. Can you tell us a bit about your project – what are you researching?

I began collecting newspaper accounts of the election for the U. S. Senate seat for Kentucky early in 2013 when the election coverage began. I am only using the Cincinnati Enquirer, the only daily newspaper in the Cincinnati metropolitan area. I am collecting articles that address issues related to the race as well as candidate specific articles. My original plan was to create a pamphlet to use in my “Campaigns and Elections” class for students to see how an election develops. After a few months however I began to realize that by using content analysis I might also be able to see if there was any bias in the information being presented, or in the way the election was being covered. My intention is to try and answer those questions through analyzing content and context. Although limited in scope, the research will add to the ongoing academic dialogue centered on the role of the mass media in a democratic society.

2. Can you give us a brief summary of how you are conducting your research concerning the Kentucky Senate race and newspaper coverage?

At this point I am concentrating on collecting all relevant articles and considering what variables I might use in applying content analysis to the information. Factors could include how often the articles come out, what issues they focus upon, how they portray each candidate, the position taken in editorial commentary, what issues are analyzed, and how poll data is presented are all aspects of the study. The Cincinnati Enquirer is generally known as a conservative and Republican newspaper despite being part of a national chain (Gannett). Content analysis may provide a deeper understanding of how the mass media frame an election if bias is uncovered. However, if bias is not discovered, then it might mean that the stereotype of the paper is not real and in fact, it might help define what balanced journalism might look like for election coverage.

3. If there is a bias in favor of McConnell, what explanations do you think would explain it? What about in favor of Grimes?

I would suspect that if bias favoring McConnell were found, it would be based upon the Senator’s long incumbency and ability to use his office for strategic opportunities in regard to gaining media coverage. To some degree I have already observed this in articles that relate his re-election bid while focusing upon a ‘ribbon-cutting’ in the region. He has also authored published editorial commentary on Kentucky’s heroin addiction problems. Grimes has had neither of these opportunities.

Any bias favoring Grimes does not have the same obvious point of reference as incumbency does for McConnell. Some might argue that gender bias could conceivably be a factor. Perhaps “incumbency fatigue” could also be a factor and influence the paper’s editorial staff to prefer a younger, fresher candidate. Without rigorous context analysis, it is unclear whether bias is present or not in the reporting and publication.

4. What kind of effect, or to what degree, do you believe a bias in local media can impact a United States Senate election?

If one believes that the mass media plays an important role in presenting relevant information for voters about candidates and elections, then the effect of bias could be significant. If voters are unsure about their capability to make informed decisions about candidates, then perhaps the editorial stance by a paper led by professionals whom voters believe spend significant time studying the election might be an important factor in influencing their candidate choice. If voters have a limited frame of reference for developing an opinion about a candidate’s character or issue stance, then the paper might be an important reference for the voter in coming to a decision on how to vote. If a paper reinforces a voter’s preconceived attitudes or opinions then the voter might not be challenged to critically consider his or her choice. Certainly the scale of the election is relevant to the impact of the paper upon an election. It seems fair to suggest that the impact of the newspaper upon an election outcome would be greater at the local level than at the state level, particularly where you have several moderately large cities with their own daily newspapers who may have divergent points of view.

5. What are a few major problems that you have with the way media portrays events? Do you think there is a way to better to portray political events in a more neutral light?

I am not sure that there is a perfect point of neutrality that a paper, or any election analyst, can find.   To some degree whether something is neutral or not is simply one’s perspective. That being said, I have been an elected official and experienced firsthand how the media portray events where I have been an active participant. I have learned that how an event is covered depends greatly upon the professional attitude and training of the reporter. For reporters who have limited experience, the coverage tends to be superficial. For reporters who are more seasoned, they tend to have a broader perspective of the community and issues. In that case the coverage is generally more expansive; the event or issue is placed within a larger perspective. Some reporters rely repeatedly upon the same people for their background material and quotes. Others are more open to divergent points of view and balance their approach.  As a result, the reporter’s perspective and thoughtfulness greatly affects the way an issue is presented and made relevant for the public.

Newspapers face all kinds of challenges today and the industry is not doing well as indicated by lower circulations generally.   The effort to attract the public’s attention to increase visibility (and thus sales) for both print and electronic media has led to what appears to be prioritizing coverage of the violent and the controversial to the detriment of focusing upon a more in-depth examination of political issues. However, my preference for better analysis and coverage may be just my idealized view of the press’s role in a democratic society.   In actuality, the press’s predilection to “lead with what bleeds” is an historical fact as is the idea that the press has biases. Regardless, newspapers continue to be an important agent of socialization for a democratic society and some of us refuse to accept that it could lose that key role.

Campaign Advertising: The Role of Television Advertisements

Last week I started a mini-series on campaign advertising, with an analysis of political yard signs. This week, I turn the focus to the role of television advertising.

It has been reported that a stunning 37,500 television ads have already run their course during this election season in Kentucky alone… and we still have around a month and a half until the election. The Center for Public Integrity found that of those 37,500 ads, 11,500 can be attributed to the support of Secretary of State Alison Grimes, while 25,900 are to the advantage of the Republican Party (this includes the ads aired while Bevin was a contender, thus, they are not solely for McConnell, but one can expect a majority to be in his favor). In fact, following Labor Day weekend, the Center for Public Integrity reported that McConnell was airing, on average, one television ad every five minutes…twice that of Grimes during the same time period. In total monetary terms, television advertising between both candidates comes out to $11.8 million. Most interestingly, citizens should be aware that outside groups are the main contributors to these ads, with approximately a 2:1 ratio of outside group sponsored ads to candidate sponsored ads. This shows that this Kentucky election is getting wide outside interest, but it is also interesting to note that while this is predicted to be the most expensive election in Kentucky’s history, currently, among other senate elections, this election ranks 5th in overall costs.

While the chart below breaks down exactly who is sponsoring television ads for each candidate, the real question we want to ask is: are television ads effective for campaigns? While in a previous post I have discussed the success of negative advertising, in this post I will not differentiate between the two. I simply will explore how television ads have been explained through political science research.

television ads

According to political science research, the effect of a single television ad is short lived. Gerber et al. explore this topic and show that while television ads do influence voter preferences, it is not a sustained decision for a voter. This then leads to research by Lawrence Brown. Brown shows that while ads can affect voters, television ads have their largest impacts on undecided voters. Brown further goes on to show that it is when the ad is seen that creates the most impact on the undecided voter, showing that the final blitz of advertising can have an effect on the voter’s preference, though the pool of undecided voters is relatively small, and thus this may not have as much of an impact as expected. Finally, Kaid et al. explain that aside from swaying voters, political advertising increases levels of political efficacy. Particularly focusing on younger citizens, their research shows that younger citizens were able to possess more knowledge after watching political ads than before, and that when isolated for gender, younger females knew more about candidates’ issues and personalities than younger males.

So, what does this mean for the Kentucky senate race? It certainly means that the 37,500 ads that have already been shown are not all Kentuckians will see in this race. Due to the fact that the effect of a television ad on voter preference is short lived may help explain why Kentuckians will see new television ads week after week. It also means that the final blitz of advertisements before the election will likely have the strongest impact. At the end of the day, however, these ads are not persuading or swaying already-decided voters all that much, but rather just further entrenching their political beliefs and giving them a stronger reason to vote on Election Day. It is for those reported 6% of Kentucky voters who are predicted to be “undecided voters” that all this effort being poured. Thankfully, however, it is helping educate us all as we learn about issues and politics in the Kentucky senate race, whether it sways our vote of not.


Stay in touch for my next post in this series where I will discuss the role of radio advertisements.

McConnell’s Road to Re-election Appears More Secure

With the November election drawing close, more polls are consistently showing incumbent Mitch McConnell with a comfortable lead. Early on, many Democrats considered the Senate minority leader to be vulnerable and expected a close race between McConnell and his Democratic challenger Alison Grimes, especially with McConnell’s approval and favorability ratings so low. The numbers below have been taken from pollster.com to show the latest polls favoring a McConnell victory.

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The New York Times published an article on Monday explaining McConnell’s clear advantage in his Senate race.

Taking the average of every survey over the last month, McConnell is leading by 5 points. The Upshot’s Senate election forecasting model, Leo, now gives McConnell a 93 percent chance of winning re-election on November 4th. This prediction comes not only because of his polling advantage but also because the fundamentals of the race seem to point to a McConnell victory.

As we discussed in an earlier post, incumbent defeats are highly unprecedented. The NYT article reports that no incumbent senator representing the opposing party of the White House has lost re-election in a state that leans as strongly against the incumbent president’s party as Kentucky does. Beyond the fact that McConnell has incumbency to his advantage, his own electoral history gives reason to be doubtful of a loss at this point. In 2008, McConnell easily won re-election under difficult conditions. 2008 was a far worse year for the Republican Party and McConnell’s favorability ratings were in the low 40s, as they are now.

These are not the only reasons that McConnell is at an advantage; the NYT report also argues that coal country in Kentucky will likely play a very important role.

This stretch of country in eastern Kentucky was one of the nation’s most reliably Democratic areas in the 20th century. When Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were elected president, it was by winning these “coal country” counties. Since Clinton however, Democrats have fared far worse. This is because of the national Democratic Party’s support for environmental regulations on coal-fired power plants that are popular in eastern Kentucky.

Unlike other states, there are not many places in Kentucky where Democrats are making gains to counteract their losses. In fact, Democrats are generally suffering losses across the entire state and the president’s approval rating is certainly not helping matters.

This is not to say that something will not happen to change the tide between now and Election Day. At this point, however, McConnell’s path to victory looks increasingly clear.

Campaign Advertising: The Effectiveness of Partisan Yard Signs


Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Grimes have put their campaigns to the test as this “final third” of the election season begins. Whether it is through print media, television commercials, radio ads, or digital media, campaigns have to assess where to spend the most time and money in terms of advertising. While we have seen that both candidates can raise money to finance such extravagant campaigns, it is important to examine whether not the way in which they choose to spend that cash in the upcoming weeks will help determine who will take the election. This is the start of a small series where I will delve into various forms of campaign advertising approaches and evaluate each of their effectiveness according to political science research.

Today’s topic: Yard Signs. What do political yard signs do for a campaign in terms of advertising?

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Political yard signs surface our neighborhoods and streets well before the final third of the election season starts, however, are they serving any purpose? According to political research, partisan yard signs have little to no effect on campaigns. Sean Quinn of the FiveThirtyEight blog writes, “Until yard signs sprout little legs and go to the polls on Election Day…they are just a nice little decoration.”  He goes on to explain that the people who are going to campaign offices to acquire yard signs are, in all reality, useless, because these people are going to put their yard signs on display, and then think that qualifies as enough participation, rather than go and canvass the streets. Todd Makse and Anand Sokhey agree with Quinn.10264652_728174713871708_8147109962527504615_n Their research shows that people are displaying their yard signs as a way of participation and expression, rather than for the purpose of swaying voters and getting people to the polls—the primary issues of campaign offices—which makes partisan yard signs really nothing more than lawn décor, rather than active political participation.

Interestingly, the same narrative cannot be told for non-partisan political yard signs. According to Costas Panagopoulos of Harvard University, non-partisan get-out-the-vote yard signs do have an impact on voters and campaigns. Panagopoulos’ experiment tested 14 pairs of similar polling sites in New York, with one of each pair having get-out-the-vote non-partisan yard signs displayed the day before the election, and the other being left the same as a control variable. In the end, Panagopoulos came up with  conclusive evidence that the get-out-the-vote yard signs did increase voter turnout in the sites where the non-partisan signs were displayed, as compared to turnout numbers in the control sites.

What can we learn from this? Partisan yard signs are for the benefit of the individual, not the party or campaign. While in theory this seems like it would be a great use of resources due to the fact that this is 24/7, basically free, advertising, in reality, it sways very few, if any, voters. Thus, campaigns might consider spending minimal time and resources on these yard signs, and instead put effort somewhere else where the potential payoff may be higher.

ISIS: An Alarming Threat that Could Affect Midterm Elections

With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria, I found myself wondering what the Senate minority leader had to say about this foreign affairs crisis. ISIS has now beheaded two American journalists and is continuing their threats by vowing to “not stop until we quench our thirst for your blood”.

Mitch McConnell said Congress is anxious to see what plan the president will propose. “My guess is it will require some kind of authorization from us, maybe some kind of funding, and I think if it’s a credible plan to go after these killers, he’s very likely to be supported on a bipartisan basis,” said McConnell. He further states, “I approve of what he is doing so far…and I hope he will do a lot more.”

McConnell’s support of Obama is unprecedented in the sense that he very rarely publicly supports the president on any matter, especially foreign affairs. However, this support for the president in times of crisis is a familiar concept in political science that is referred to as the “Rally ‘Round The Flag” effect. This increased support for the president in the short-term comes in response to periods of international crisis or war. Might this syndrome also affect Congressional leaders, especially those who have long-held their seat in the Congress?

It is difficult to find information regarding whether or not there is also an increased level of support in response to foreign affairs crises among all political elites, such as United States Senators. It is possible, though, that McConnell may be given a slight advantage with the recent crises abroad. McConnell has enjoyed a long tenure in the Senate and has thus moved his way up in the ranks to Senate minority leader. During this time of turmoil, will Kentucky voters be apt to remove from office one of the most powerful legislators or will voters “rally around their leaders” in hopes of a plan being drawn to deal with the terrorists? We may not know how much of an effect these problems in the Middle East will have on Election Day in Kentucky but it’s logical to assume that the “Rally ‘Round The Flag” effect may cause at least some Kentucky voters to vote to keep their strong leader in the Senate. Further research, though, would be needed to confirm this.

Entertaining An Audience: The Effectiveness of Online Events and the KFB Forum

This past week Senator Mitch McConnell and Secretary of State Alison Grimes participated in the Kentucky Farm Bureau “Measure the Candidates” forum. This event, which took place in Louisville, KY at the KFB Headquarters, was strictly limited to the KFB Board of Directors, selected staff from each campaign, and selected members of the press. In addition, the forum aired only online. Whether or not the online events are effective, however, is an open question.

The event, moderated by KFB President, Mark Haney, started with each candidate giving a five minute opening statement, followed by questions from KFB Board members and then a closing statement. The questions asked ranged from international trade, to immigration, to healthcare, to environmental issues, and others, all encompassed around farm policy.

While McConnell and Grimes did agree on some issues, that was not a universal theme. For example, McConnell advocated for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform saying that is the most feasible way to get the legislation to pass, while Grimes supported a comprehensive immigration reform plan. Additionally, when the issue of healthcare approached, McConnell gave no mercy for “Obamacare” but Grimes was less tempered with the subject due to the success of Kynect in Kentucky.

While McConnell was able to speak of the legislation he passed that helped Kentucky farmers, such as the Tobacco Buyout, the higher exemption on the Estate Tax, and the passage of the Farm Bill, it seemed that Grimes came into the forum with a hard-set agenda. As a response to nearly every question asked, Grimes found a way to insert her dissatisfaction with McConnell’s attendance record at Senate agricultural committee hearings, and that under McConnell’s watch the most recent passage of the Farm Bill was delayed. McConnell responded that Grimes’ “friend and supporter, Harry Reid, must not have told her about how party leaders typically deal with committee work.” While this did not stop Grimes from continuing to interject comments concerning his attendance record, when asked by the press after the forum how many times she has missed work as Secretary of State while campaigning, Charly Norton, Grimes’ press secretary, immediately cut off the question and moved to a different reporter.

This was the first time in the Senate race that the two candidates appeared at a joint forum to discuss issues pertinent to Kentuckians. While the KFB emphasized that this was a forum (not a debate), and stated explicitly that they do not endorse political candidates, it cannot be compared to the debates we will see in the fall. McConnell arguably had nothing to gain from this forum (however, showing the KFB community that he continues to support agriculture initiatives certainly plays to his advantage) but it is a different story for Grimes. A forum such as this where the two candidates appear together gave Grimes a chance to show Kentucky that she could take on the seasoned Senator McConnell and show that she is well versed on the issues Kentuckians face, specifically agricultural issues. While it can be debated as to whether she proved herself in this forum and held her own, it certainly can be said that it did not sink her.

Of course, one interesting question we might ask is: who was watching this forum? [1] The event did not have great publicity: it took place in a cramped boardroom not open to the public, the livestream began at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday when people were at work, and it was only online, not televised… Just from the logistics, it doesn’t seem that this forum was out to help either candidate.

According to the Pew Research Center, during the 2012 presidential election season it was reported that 65% of internet-using registered voters (55% of all registered voters) “have gone online this election season to watch videos related to the election campaign or political issues.” [2] While this seems like a decent turnout when considering streaming a forum online, it must be noted that out of that 65% of internet-using registered voters, only 28% “watch live videos online of candidate speeches, press conferences, or debates.” It could be argued that 28% is quite a low proportion of the potential audience, and when you factor in that this event was for a Senate election (instead of a presidential election) and that the event was not widely publicized and took place during the work day, we may reasonably expect that the actual viewership of this event was likely much lower than 28%.

In conclusion, we may reasonably conclude that the forum likely did not hurt either candidate’s chances. While the logistics of the event were not set up to encourage a wide viewership, it must be noted that that was not the primary intention of the KFB. The KFB wanted to see how the candidates responded to agricultural issues, and seeing that both candidates accepted this invitation (while turning down several others), it is reasonable to conclude that both candidates acknowledge the importance of the rural vote in Kentucky politics.  As noted, this was the first time the two candidates appeared at the same event to discuss and interact with issues pertinent to Kentucky, and reassuringly, it is not the last time the two will appear together. This forum was just a preview of what is to come this fall with McConnell and Grimes accepting the KET invitation, where the publicity and viewership of the event will be greatly prioritized.

[FN1. It must be noted that the KFB supports this forum whenever there is a major race (gubernatorial races and congressional ), and the primary reason, once again, is not debate, but rather it is to see how high profile candidates react to issues important to KFB and its members. Therefore, the viewership of this event is not as imperative as it will be in future fall debates.]

[FN2. Even though this is for a presidential election, we can use this to estimate what may be the case for a Senate election. It should be noted that presidential elections have a much greater civic response than midterm elections.]

Elite Endorsements: Former President Bill Clinton Campaigns for Grimes

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Last week, Caroline and I attended Alison Grimes’ campaign event in Lexington at The Carrick House. There were roughly 400 in attendance at a luncheon at which former President Bill Clinton was a guest and spoke highly of Alison Grimes, his longtime friend. This friendship was forged in the 1980s when Clinton was governor of Arkansas and Jerry Lundergan, Grimes’ father, brought him up to Kentucky a number of times. When Grimes needed advice on a potential Senate run, she turned to this longtime friend who has been by her side since.

We sat with the rest of the press in attendance while other guests found their table and seat. The event began with a number of speakers. Kentucky’s Attorney General, Jack Conway, spoke followed by former governor of Kentucky, Martha Layne Collins, and finally current Kentucky governor Steve Besehar spoke. All of these speakers were touching on Mitch McConnell’s claim that it is not his job to create jobs for Kentuckians. 

An inspiring video of Grimes was projected and at the conclusion Grimes and Clinton made their entrance onto the stage to a standing ovation from the crowd. Both spoke regarding the necessity for Grimes in Washington to create jobs for Kentuckians, to get equal pay for equal work for women, to get veterans the benefits they deserve, and other promises to the potential voters in attendance. 

photo 1Grimes stated, “I’m not an empty dress. I’m not a cheerleader. I’m not a rubber stamp. One label I will proudly wear is that I am a Clinton Democrat,” to which the crowd responded very positively. Soon after, Clinton spoke of his friendship with the Lundergan family and his faith in Grimes as a candidate for the United States Senate. So how does Clinton’s stamp of approval affect Grimes’ campaign?

I earlier wrote a post discussing the effect of endorsements, and particularly the influence of elite endorsements, on a candidate’s campaign. The research we cited shows little evidence of any concrete link between an endorsement and increased voter turnout or increased turnout for a specific candidate. As I wrote earlier, though, this is not to undervalue the importance of endorsements for a candidate.

Elite endorsements, especially those coming from high-powered groups or politicians, carry more clout than do smaller organizations and less well-known individuals. For example, the larger the endorsement, such as that coming from a well-liked former president, the more benefits that might be attached such as campaign donations or manpower. The extra resources that come from these endorsements can prove to be helpful and may very well benefit a campaign. Although the existing research lacks clear evidence of a direct correlation between endorsement and voter turnout for a specific candidate, there is definitely a connection between the increased resources and the turnout for a specific candidate . Thus, while endorsements do not often directly lead to vote choices in Senate elections, they likely have an indirect effect through the additional resources that they provide to a campaign to mobilize and campaign.

Fancy Farm Picnic: The Unofficial Kick Off of Election Season

This weekend I made my first trip to Fancy Farm, Kentucky to take part in the 134th Annual Fancy Farm Picnic. This event, a fundraiser for St. Jerome Church, is also considered the informal start date of Kentucky’s campaign season, and receives national news coverage by inviting large crowds of supporters, the state’s political leaders and candidates, and, of course, serving 9 tons of barbeque. The picnic’s reputation held true once again this year, where candidates were not on the stage to talk calmly about their opponent, but rather each speech was full of political zingers, casting why the candidate was better than his/her opponent.Governor Steve Beshear (D-KY) set the tone of the event as the first speaker. He started off saying, “Excuse me just one minute,” walked over to where Senator Mitch McConnell was sitting and took a picture of himself and McConnell, and then said, “I’m sorry. I just had to get one last photo of the Senator before Kentucky voters retire him in November.” This opening brought the crowd alive, as Secretary Grimes and McConnell supporters alike chanted back to the Governor, both in support and opposition on his statement. Among the crowd there was a clear divide, with a majority of Grimes supports on one side, and McConnell supporters on the other.

When it was time for Grimes and McConnell to speak, the crowd became even more heated. Grimes, the first of the two to give her speech, started off saying,photo 1 (1) “And what a huge crowd…for Senator McConnell’s retirement party.” This was a staple of her presence at Fancy Farm. On theback of the t-shirts made for Grimes’ supporters, it had the same quote, as well as on the way to Fancy Farm, for the last eight miles, Grimes put up “mile-marking” signs indicating it was X amount of miles left until the McConnell retirement party. Grimes went on with many other political zingers in her opening minutes with comments such as “And Senator McConnell, with all this great barbeque, trust me, there is no way I’m going to leave here today an empty dress”, and “35 is my age, that’s also Senator McConnell’s approval rating.”

McConnell was not to be upstaged, however. He also came out firing back at Grimes. On the back of McConnell supporters’ t-shirts it read “Obama needs Alison Grimes. Kentucky 10445965_10204756159208741_232288675281412218_nneeds Mitch McConnell” and McConnell made the comparison between Grimes and Obama the staple of his speech. McConnell said, “By any standard, Barack Obama has been a disaster for our country. Now, if you think about it that’s what you get for electing someone with no experience. He was only two years into his first job, when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar? His campaign raised millions from extreme liberals. Sound familiar? He really didn’t have any qualifications. Sound familiar? And anytime he got in trouble and his inexperience became obvious, he called in Bill Clinton. Sound familiar?”

The true theatre of Fancy Farm, however, came from Senator Rand Paul who spoke after McConnell. Paul, campaigning on behalf of McConnell, provided the crowd with a bit of poetry. He started off saying, “There once was a woman who came from Kentucky, who thought in politics she’d be lucky. So she flew to L.A. for a Hollywood bash. She came home in a flash, with buckets of cash…To liberals she whispers ‘coal makes you sick.’ In Kentucky she claims ‘coal makes us tick.’” Paul continued with his poem and the crowd roared.

While the political speaking was the high point of the event, it was not just the politicians working the crowd, but their campaign staff, as well, as they armed the crowed with political paraphernalia. In my next post, I will address the effectiveness of political yard signs and other paraphernalia–is it serving any purpose?

Lexington HQ Opening for Grimes: An Analysis of Spending and Victory

This week Secretary of State Alison Grimes held an event to kick off her bus tour to the annual Fancy Farm picnic this weekend, as well as open her Lexington, Kentucky campaign headquarters. The event drew a couple hundred people, and speakers were lined up to help rally supporters. Upon arrival, volunteers asked whether you were registered to vote or not. If your answer was no they were prepared to assist you. The volunteers then lead you inside the headquarters where you could look around the office and then you were lead outside to wait for the speakers to begin.photo 1


Among the speakers at the event were Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen, Attorney General and 2015 gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway, former Governor of Kentucky Martha Layne Collins, current Lt. Governor or Kentucky Jerry Abramson, and Grimes herself. Each of the speakers hit on issues which Grimes has prioritized in her campaign message, including women’s pay, minimum wage, student debt, creating jobs, and infrastructure developments, and then stated where they believed Senator McConnell had failed on each of these issues. The statement from Edelen, “Alison believes in a government of the people, by the people, and for the people…McConnell believes in a government of the few, by the few, and not for you” received a wave of cheer, and held the energy high throughout the event. When Grimes took the podium, she took on the issues already discussed in the event, but focused a large portion of her speech on women and job creation—two areas where she believes Senator McConnell has failed Kentucky.

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One of the comments made by Edelen was that, “This is going to be a turnout election.” He went on to say that while money was good and that a great deal of money was being spent on this election, it wasn’t about the money in this election, but rather “the race is going to be about people.” While this statement went over well with the crowd, from a political science perspective, it is not entirely accurate.

In political campaigns, research has consistently shown that campaign spending has a strong link to vote shares. It is undeniable that over the last decade the candidate who spends more money in an election is more likely to win, however the causality is not clear. Most political scientists would say that the candidate with more money usually wins because people donate to the candidate they think is going to win, rather than saying that the money, itself, caused a candidate to win. However, while causality is not clear, there is still an undeniable association between money and election victory.


According to a separate school of thought, Grimes should certainly be concerned with the amount of money she is spending, because research has also shown that the amount of money spent by a challenger has a significantly greater impact than the amount of money spent by the incumbent in an election when determining vote shares. The theory goes that the more a challenger spends, the greater amount of the vote share he/she will receive; however, the more money an incumbent spends, the less amount of the vote share he/she will receive (talk to Eric Cantor…he can tell you all about that).

Thus, while it is a crowd pleaser to say that the campaign isn’t about money and more about the people, in reality, this may not be the case…it seems that the money plays a vital role in an election, and certainly in this election where the ability to fundraise is unquestionable to remain competitive.


Campaign Advice for Mitch McConnell and Alison Lundergan Grimes

[ Note: this essay is cross-posted on Huffington Post and Information Knoll ]

There’s no shortage of campaign strategy advice in this year’s Kentucky Senate race. In that spirit, I’ll add my own two cents.

If I were advising the McConnell campaign, I would say…

Don’t screw up.

You’re the incumbent and incumbents already enjoy somewhere between a 5%-10% advantage right off the bat, although this does tend to fade over time so it’s not going to be worth as much as it was in the past when you first ran for reelection. Also, the economic and political “fundamentals” are on your side, which is why all the numbers geeks are giving you anywhere between a 78% and 99%+ chance of winning (see here, here, and here). So basically, just make sure to keep up with the fundraising and campaigning, give your conservative Republican base a reason to turn out to vote for you by railing on Obama and by talking up the strong possibility of a GOP Senate takeover.

And don’t screw up.

If I were advising the Grimes campaign, I would say…

You and I both know that you have an uphill battle to fight. You’re a Democratic challenger in a red state where the sitting Democratic president is very unpopular. But then, your incumbent opponent is also very unpopular in your state, but that tends to matter less than the economic and political fundamentals which are currently giving you a 1-in-5 chance, at best. You’ll need a strong campaign combined with some luck to come out on top this year.

Right now it seems that one of your key strategies is trying to appeal to women, presumably in an attempt to entice Republican women over to your team (seehere, here, and here, e.g.). While it makes for a great media narrative and may possibly work, there are strong reasons to think that this may not be the most effective strategy. To put it bluntly, women simply don’t tend to be swing voters. Oodles of political science research has shown that, after controlling for partisanship, there’s not much of a difference between men and women in their voting patterns. In other words, women are just as reliably partisan as men. The fault lines of American politics do not tend to fall around gender, but rather partisanship and ideology. Thus, there are likely not very many Republican women who are going to “defect” in this high-profile partisan election.

So who are more likely targets where you could concentrate your efforts? I took the liberty of doing some number crunching on an exit poll of Kentucky voters from the 2008 Kentucky Senate election where McConnell narrowly beat Bruce Lunsford 53%-47%. In that election, only about 14% of Republicans voted for Lunsford, and they made up only 5% of all voters total. Further analysis shows that these Republican defectors tended to be a little younger than their loyal partisan counterparts (about 22% of Republican defectors were under age 30 compared to 15% of Republicans who stayed in the fold). They also tended to be poorer (46% of Republican defectors made less than $50K/year compared to 33% of loyal Republicans) and more ideologically moderate (56% of those Republican defectors identified as moderate and 34% as conservative, while those who stuck with McConnell were 37% moderate and 70% conservative).

Perhaps most importantly, there was ZERO difference when it came to gender. 50.7% of Republicans who voted for Lunsford were women compared to 50.4% who voted for McConnell – a statistically indistinguishable amount. This suggests that women are very likely not the persuadable demographic among Republican partisans. Instead, it seems to be younger, poorer, more moderate Republicans.

On the other hand, nearly a quarter of self-identified Democrats switched sides and voted for Mitch McConnell in 2008. They made up a full 11% of all voters in that election. What did these Democrats look like? They were more ideologically conservative (34% of Democratic McConnell voters said they were conservative compared to only 15% of Democratic Lunsford voters), more likely to be white (95% of Democratic defectors were white compared to 72% of loyal Democrats), and more likely to approve of George Bush (34% compared to 10%). They were also slightly more likely to be men, making up 48% of Democrats who voted for McConnell compared to 41% of Democrats who voted for Lunsford. There were also no differences when it came to age, education levels, income, or religiosity. This suggests that in 2008, Lunsford lost Democratic partisans who looked a lot like Republicans – conservative white men who were more approving of President Bush. This suggests that you might have success keeping your Democratic partisans “in the fold” by veering toward the middle and appealing to cultural conservatives in Kentucky as much as possible.

That presents a tough choice: appeal to younger, more moderate Republicans who might be persuaded to defect or appeal to conservative white Democrats who may be likely to switch sides. Given that there were more than twice as many voters in the latter category (11% of all voters) than the former (5% of all voters) in 2008, it stands to reason that veering toward the middle and trying to retain moderate Democratic partisans may be the option with the higher pay-off. That being said, you don’t want to veer too far toward the middle or you might risk alienating your loyal liberal base so much that they don’t care enough to turn out to vote on Election Day. Trying to balance that tightrope walk will be a delicate endeavor indeed.

One thing is for certain, at least: there is little evidence from the 2008 Kentucky Senate election that Republican women were a persuadable demographic in that campaign. It’s possible that the 2014 Senate campaign will be different, but given how consistent and predictable American voting patterns are, I wouldn’t bet on it. Perhaps consider altering the approach slightly. Forget about “peeling off” Republican women and instead focus on loyal Democratic women (to make sure they show up to vote on Election Day) and moderate or conservative-leaning Democratic women (to encourage them to stay in the fold).