AR-02: Schrödinger’s Cat And A Rural Surge

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    In 1935, physicist Erwin Schrödinger described a now-famous paradox in quantum mechanics.  The model of quantum physics most widely used at the time held that, until it is actually measured, a sub-atomic particle is in all of its possible states (known as a “superposition”) at once.  According to Schrödinger, one could create a machine where the life of a cat placed inside the machine was based upon the state of a radioactive atom (decayed or not decayed) over the span of one hour.  Based on the superposition theory, Schrödinger said, because the atom is both decayed and not decayed until the machine is opened and the results measured, you reach a paradox where the cat is both alive and dead at the same time.

    I mention all of this because of Patrick Kennedy’s recent Tweet

    Watch for Kennedy surge in rural Arkansas counties. Spent more time than any candidate[.]

    Sounds smart, right?  Almost like a Moneyball approach to targeting voters, wherein you locate and exploit market inefficiencies.  Could it be that Kennedy and Co. have landed on a winning strategy by focusing on the rural counties that most candidates ignore?

    In a word: no.

    The numbers simply don’t make such a strategy worthwhile.  Pulaski County has about 53% of the registered voters1 in the second district, Saline has about 14%, and Faulkner has about 14%.  The other five counties of AR-02 — Yell, White, Van Buren, Perry , and Conway — combine for roughly 19% of the vote.  Charlie Daniels continues to suggest that somewhere between 30 and 35% of the registered voters will turn out for the primary, placing this year close to or just above the record 34% turnout in 1994.

    So let’s split the difference and assume that 1/3 (26,622) of the rural county voters show up. Based on the percentage splits for those counties in the 2006 general,2 let’s be generous and assume that 2/3 (17,837) of the voters showing up vote in the Democratic primary.3 Now, for best-case-scenario purposes, let’s say that Kennedy somehow pulls 30% (5,351) of those votes.4 Even then, with a whopping 30%, Kennedy has snagged a whole 5% of the expected AR-02 Democratic vote (94,345). (By way of comparison, a candidate would have to take only 10.7% of Pulaski County to reach the same raw vote total.)

    What’s worse, at least from Kennedy’s standpoint, if one makes the fairly safe assumption that it will take at least 20% (18,869) of the projected total Democratic AR-02 vote (94,345)5 to finish in second place and get into a runoff, our hypothetical best-case-scenario 30% rural win would leave Kennedy 13,518 votes short of that threshold. Getting those votes from Pulaski, Saline, and Faulkner would require Kennedy to take 18% of those counties’ votes.

    And there is the real problem — spending all the extra effort in the rural counties, even when you assume the best possible circumstances, reduces Kennedy’s need from 20% across the board to 18% in the bigger counties. At the same time, spending all that time in the rural counties (i.e., “more than any candidate”) makes it likely that he was spending less time in the three big counties, which makes reaching that 18% more difficult.

    Also, this doesn’t even account for the fact that there is no chance that Kennedy takes 18% of Faulkner County, where Robbie Wills is sure to pull a huge percentage of the Democratic vote. If Kennedy can’t get 18% in Faulkner, the percentage he needs in Pulaksi and Saline obviously rises. So, in reality, Kennedy’s strategy of trying to win big in the rural areas has likely not dented the total he would need in Pulaksi and Saline counties one bit.

    Speaking of Faulkner County, odds are good that the Gilbert Baker Effect will siphon some votes that might have otherwise gone to the Democratic primary. If the rumored AR-reddening GOP momentum is real, it’s probably a safe assumption that other counties — especially the rural ones — will vote in the GOP primary at higher rates than they normally would. This would be disastrous for Kennedy’s strategy, really, inasmuch as Pulaski County is more solidly blue than the surrounding areas, and, thus, it is likely to show less of an impact from the GOP momentum. If Pulaski winds up disproportionate to the other counties in terms of Democratic turnout, Kennedy’s rural-county strategy makes even less sense and would actually be counter-productive.

    Now, I fully grant that all of this assumes certain numbers that may not ever come to fruition. In fact, it is theoretically possible that the rural voters will be so swayed by Kennedy’s “fresh” and “issues-oriented” message that they will show up in disproportionate numbers (as compared to the more urban voters). That said, it’s also theoretically possible that D.C. Morrison will win the AR-Sen primary. Theoretical possibility does not make something even remotely likely. I think it is far more probable that a rural-county-focused strategy is useless at best and detrimental at worst.  “[T]he blueprint of progress” may indeed reside “in the hands of our youngest visionaries;” the blueprint for running a successful U.S. House campaign apparently does not.

    SO, tying it all together, what does this have to do with Schrödinger and his cat?  Well, while obviously not on par with Mr. Schrödinger’s mindbender, Kennedy’s strategy seems to create its own paradox.  Spending more time in rural counties courting those voters means spending less time in the areas of higher population, such that any surge from the rural counties would likely be offset by a corresponding lack of votes in the other areas.  In that case, at the end of the day, there is no visible evidence in the outcome of the election that would suggest a surge ever happened.

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    1 I’m speaking in terms of raw registered-voter totals because there is no required party affiliation for primaries.
    2 We’re using 2006 because no Republican ran against Vic Snyder in 2008, and we’re using a general election so we can see D/R splits in the AR-02 race
    3 Splits from 2006: Yell — 67/33 Democrat; White — 51/49 Democrat; Van Buren — 60/40 Democrat; Perry — 64/36 Democrat; Conway — 69/31 Democrat.
    4 Unlikely at best.
    5 Again using 33% turnout and 67% Democrat.