Thursday, January 1, 2009

Misguided Perriello victory memes

Chris Cillizza yesterday offered his list of top congressional campaigns for 2008, and it included our Perriello vs. Goode campaign in VA-5. Earlier in the week, our race graced Politico's list of election upsets. While I am elated and thankful that our work is honored by both of these lists, I am a little upset that our victory is explained in facile and erroneous terms. To their defense, these pundits have to look at 435 congressional races, so their "on-the-ground" knowledge of the district is inherently abstract and distant. I feel, however, that if I don't correct some of these misguided Perriello victory memes, later pundits will dutifully regurgitate these misconceptions.

After Cillizza offers a couple particular strengths of our campaign, he concludes by musing, "Would he have been able to pull the narrow -- 745 votes [727 after recount] -- upset without Obama leading the ticket? Probably not." In essence, Tom would not have won without Obama's coattails. I am not a statistics expert, and I am not particularly sure how to statistically measure coattails, as this is a challenging and nebulus argument to prove. On the quick and easy, Perriello outperformed Obama within the district, both in total votes (158.810 v 157,362) and in percentages (50.08% v 48.29%) - keep in mind the inevitable voter drop-off from presidential races to congressional races. If you want to dissect these numbers per locality, we outperformed in total votes in 10 of our 22 localities. Again, total votes includes inevitable voter drop-off, so if you look at vote percentages per locality, we outperformed Obama in 15 of the 22 localities. To conclude that Obama's coattails pulled Tom to victory misjudges the actual data, and at the same time, it belittles the hard work and dedication our staff and volunteers put into this race. Please hear me when I say that the Obama field organization was absolutely top-notched throughout our district, but here, I am arguing against a misguided meme, not the Obama field team or their work.

County/City Perriello total votes Perriello % 2008 Obama total votes Obama % 2008
Albemarle 31827 63.3% 29792 58.4%
Appomattox 2758 36.4% 2641 34.6%
Bedford 7124 38.3% 6298 33.0%
Bedford (City) 1316 49.7% 1208 44.2%
Brunswick 3720 62.3% 3985 63.9%
Buckingham 3446 50.2% 3489 49.9%
Campbell 8837 35.6% 8091 31.3%
Charlotte 2596 44.1% 2705 43.9%
Charlottesville (City) 15909 80.8% 15705 78.4%
Cumberland 2195 48.4% 2255 47.7%
Danville (City) 11487 58.0% 12352 59.1%
Fluvanna 6564 52.3% 6185 48.6%
Franklin 9475 37.7% 9618 37.9%
Greene 3733 46.0% 3174 38.4%
Halifax 7528 46.8% 8126 48.2%
Henry 6846 42.9% 6862 42.6%
Lunenburg 2737 49.5% 2703 47.8%
Martinsville (City) 3974 61.2% 4139 63.5%
Mecklenburg 6454 44.6% 7127 47.3%
Nelson 4562 56.3% 4391 54.0%
Pittsylvania 11025 37.7% 11415 37.5%
Prince Edward 4697 53.8% 5101 54.3%
Total 158810 50.1% 157362 48.3%

Politico's justification is just as problematic, but easier to data-crunch. They said:
When all the ballots were cast, counted and then recounted, Perriello’s strong margin among the progressive-minded university community around Charlottesville helped propel him to victory by less than 1,000 votes.
We absolutely burned the city of Charlottesville; we took names and numbers, both literally and figuratively. When you put this in a district-wide context, however, the claim that Charlottesville/UVA alone pulled us through is weak - let's not squabble over the semantics of the word 'helped' here please. Al Weed, the two-time Democratic congressional candidate, got roughly 40% of the vote in 2006 compared to Goode's 59%. In effect, we needed to gain 10% of the vote in all parts of the district to win the race, which of course, in a zero-sum context would subtract 10% from Goode's performance. Compared to 2006, we made percentage gains in every locality, with Nelson County making the least gains with a 5.4% increase. Importantly, we made 10% gains or more in 13 of the 22 localities, and the gains made in these localities covered the areas where we came up short. Where did we make the most percentage gains? Bedford City 12.1%; Lunenburg 12.2%; Prince Edward 12.4%; Cumberland 12.8%; Henry 13.5%; Danville 14.1%; Martinsville 20.8%! Notice something here geography wizards? That's right, the highest percentage gains were made in the Southside. Sure, at a certain point Charlottesville numbers must hit a ceiling as large percentage gains aren't possible there: 74.6% in 2006 to 80.8% in 2008. The overall argument, however, can easily be made that the Southside carried us to victory, not the Charlottesville area (Martinsville, anyone?).

County/City Weed % 2006 Perriello % 2008 2006/2008 Net % Gain
Albemarle 54.3% 63.3% 9.0%
Appomattox 29.0% 36.4% 7.4%
Bedford 28.3% 38.3% 10.0%
Bedford (City) 37.6% 49.7% 12.1%
Brunswick 53.3% 62.3% 9.0%
Buckingham 40.0% 50.2% 10.2%
Campbell 27.4% 35.6% 8.2%
Charlotte 33.8% 44.1% 10.3%
Charlottesville (City) 74.6% 80.8% 6.2%
Cumberland 35.6% 48.4% 12.8%
Danville (City) 43.9% 58.0% 14.1%
Fluvanna 41.8% 52.3% 10.5%
Franklin 28.1% 37.7% 9.6%
Greene 34.6% 46.0% 11.4%
Halifax 35.7% 46.8% 11.1%
Henry 29.4% 42.9% 13.5%
Lunenburg 37.3% 49.5% 12.2%
Martinsville (City) 40.4% 61.2% 20.8%
Mecklenburg 35.2% 44.6% 9.4%
Nelson 50.9% 56.3% 5.4%
Pittsylvania 29.5% 37.7% 8.2%
Prince Edward 41.4% 53.8% 12.4%
Total 39.9% 50.1% 10.2%

The truth of the matter is, with a difference of 727 votes, you can't really pinpoint any one thing or one area as the silver bullet in this congressional race. All parts came together in the perfect storm. These stats, to me, show that a national (and even local) understandings of this race contain superficial analysis. With that in mind, and with my in-the-trenches perspective, I can offer a few macro-level observations:
1.) While the 2006 numbers on their face once seemed daunting, Goode's district-wide support was soft. People voted for Goode out of habit, and past candidates could not penetrate that practice. When presented with a candidate that voters deemed viable - when presented with a legitimate choice - past Goode voters flocked to Tom. In the eyes of the voters, Tom wasn't just a regular Democratic candidate, Tom was an electable, worthy-of-office candidate.
2.) Tom got to define himself before Goode could. Usually the incumbent has the ability to define the challenger and the challenger has difficulty shedding that portrait. In this race, however, Tom traveled throughout the district meeting with thousands of voters before Goode took notice. Tom's defined himself first as a hard-working, solutions-oriented man, which deflated Goode's "Charlottesville liberal" and "New York lawyer" characterizations.
3.) Similarly, Tom's positive, solutions-oriented message was comforting, while Goode's negative attacks were off-putting. For example, Tom offered positive solutions to the jobs and economic crisis while Goode scapegoated anchor babies. The contrasting messages were nowhere more evident than in the debates, where several people went in with Goode stickers on their lapels and left with Perriello stickers on their cars. Also, Tom's positive television ads were a tipping-point in this election.
4.) Tom showed up and ceded no voter. Tom traveled the district, covering hundreds of miles every day. He never slept and never took a day off. He met with voters everywhere, whenever possible. Places like Martinsville never saw so much attention by a congressional candidate. He showed up to Goode's hometurf of Franklin County almost weekly. Structurally speaking, Tom focused on building a large district wide grassroots network, with an emphasis on the Southside. Our campaign opened eight district offices, seven of which were located in the Southside. This gave us the ability to reach every voter in every corner of the district.
5.) Tom's exceptional fundraising prowess provided the financial stability to achieve all of the above. Tom raised a cool $1.8 million on this race, compared to the $607K Weed was able to raise in 2006. Money raises the ceiling on the number of voters a campaign can contact, and Perriello was able to go toe-to-toe with Goode.
6.) Tom's staff and volunteers never stopped believing. Even when polls showed us down 34 points three months out, we weren't alarmed; we knew that the polls would close and that we were always in the game. Once the ads went up, the race tightened significantly. And all the while, we faithfully continued our ambitious strategy.


JCWhite said...

Excellent comparative post showing the results of hard work by the "on-the-ground" staff and volunteers for the Perriello campaign. I hope you will cross post this to BC!

Darren Staley said...

What about the voter turnout numbers? What was the difference between 2004 ,2006,and 2008?

My question is, and I am in no way knocking the Perriello campaign's work, but how many new Democratic voters came out because of Obama and their voter-registration efforts?

This is the one statistical element missing from your argument.

Henry County Worker said...

Right on the money Drew....we did it the old fashion way, we earned it. In Tom Perriello and his hard working, never quitting, field personnel, we found hope, and success. From 34 points behind and pundits saying there was no chance, we drove forward to victory. All counties and independent towns contributed, gains were made everywhere. Thank you Drew for keeping the facts before our face. The VA-5 has a great congressperson now, because of all the work of dedicated staffers, and believing voters,across the board.

Drew said...

Part of an email conversation I had with a Charlottesville activist, who claimed that I underestimated the importance of Obama to Tom's victory:

I don't mean to underestimate the presidential context of the election. People were going to the polls to vote for the President, a little more for McCain than Obama. I am not sure how you can statistically prove a coat-tail effect at all (any ideas?), and at the very least, our strong, deep structure was able to take advantage of the presidential vote. I just get upset when people attribute Tom's victory to Obama, belittling our hard work and thereby implying that Tom will get smoked in 2010. ... If we rode any Democratic/Obama wave it is because we put our campaign in a position to maximize the turnout of the wave, which, to me, is more of a testiment to our campaign then the wave itself.

Just my take. I don't want this victory to be remembered with superficial analysis.

Drew said...

Darren, that might be a good way to point to Obama's positive effects. The total votes were 270,758 in 2004 (98,237 for Weed, 36.3%); 212,079 in 2006 (84,682 for Weed, 39.9%); and in 2008, a total vote of 317,076 (158,810 for Perriello, 50.1%). So there were about 47,000 more votes cast in 2008 than 2004, and 105,000 more votes in 2008 than 2006 (a non-presidential year).

I have heard estimates that the 5th district registered as low as 20,000 and as high as 50,000 new voters. Not sure the exact amount of new registrants. Of note, Kerry got 43% of the vote, while Obama got 48.3%. Does this point to the Obama wave? Perhaps, but you can't deny we outperformed Obama ... also see my previous comment for maybe a nuanced middle-ground.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating analysis Drew. As an avid Obama supporter, I can honestly say that phone calls with you where I helped you go over the election results while you drove to Charlottesville were among the highlights of election night. When CNN called it for Goode I was bummed, and when they uncalled it and it seemed that you had been right it was insane. Perhaps because Obama's victory seemed to be a forgone conclusion, it was you and Periello who made that night for me. Congrats again.

Matt F.

Darren Staley said...

One last comment.

If anyone says Perriello won solely because of Obama they are misguided.

On the other hand, if anyone says that Obama didn't help at all, they are misguided as well.

Fact is, the Perriello camp ran a great campaign with a great candidate.

As in any campaign, many factors outside the camp's control can contribute to victory or defeat.

Perriello's victory is due to himself and his campaign team. Could he have won without Obama? Maybe. Did he win because of Obama? No. Did Obama help? Probably.

I take your point, but I don't think any slight is intended. You guys were great and you won. That's the bottom line.

Drew said...

Well said, Darren.

Can We Please Not Renominate Goode said...

Hi guys, please don't kill me on my excursion to the other side of the blogosphere. :)

The more moderate, sane ones (aka me and a couple others) in the 5th District GOP have run the same numbers you did and came to the same conclusion. This was a perfect storm for you guys and you took advantage.

Congratulations on running a great campaign, you deserve the victory. I look forward to doing battle again in 2 years.

Darren Staley said...


Glad you posted that anon. Very gracious.

Drew said...

CWPNRG, thanks for stopping by. Stay awhile. I would love for you to add your perspective.

Anonymous said...

There is no way that one will ever be able to sort out what factors contributed positively and negatively to the perfect storm, other that to point out that the Perriello folks dug in and did not give up in the face of what one local Democratic politician called "The foregone conclusion that Virgil Goode would win hands down." Congressman-elect Tom Perriello spent a great amount of time in the Southside, brought both President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden down here to speak. I was among the hundred or so that went to hear and see John Grisham support Tom Perriello. The hope that was raised here that Presidential and Vice Presidental and famous authors would come to Henry and Franklin Counties carried many of us Goode ole boys back to our Democratic roots.

Drew you will never remember me, but I spoke to you at the ice cream parlor when John Grisham was there and your words about how Mr. Perriello and his view of the future convinced me to vote for him. Some may have voted for Mr. Perriello because of President-elect Obama, but I voted for him because when I heard you and him speak, I felt a new hope that I had not felt in a long time.

Thank you Drew for your work at telling the truth no matter what comes of it.

Drew said...

Anon @ 9:41,

I am sure that I would recognize you in person. Thank you for your kind words. Your story means a lot to me. Thank you.