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O'Donnell's Delaware Win About Turnout and Message

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Christine O'Donnell's win over the long tenured U.S. Representative Mike Castle, 53% to 47% (+6% points), might have been a shocker to most, but what really happened, and what most observers missed, was that turnout was higher than normal in lower Delaware (Kent and Sussex Counties), and average in upper Delaware (New Castle County).

Polls underestimated these levels for most of the campaign, and thus, missed the trend. Plus, the lack of in-state polling provided no clues about the sources and substance of information that mobilized voters. It turns out that lower Delaware counties, which are traditionally Republican, are losing their liberal and moderate appeal. It suggests that the GOP leadership may not be in as much touch as they think with their constituents. And, questions abound about the ability of existing state GOP leadership's ability to mobilize support given the shock of the O'Donnell win. In sum, evidence points to a geo-political realignment of the GOP within Delaware.

Castle won New Castle County 58% to 42%, but lost Kent and Sussex counties, 64% to 36%. O'Donnell's support in both Kent and Sussex was twice that of Castle's. It appears that Castle failed to mobilize liberal and moderate Republicans, and relied too heavily on the state party for his campaigning. Although Castle was well funded, O'Donnell's last minute support from outside sources allowed her to communicate her message and get out the vote; and it paid off.

Segue to the polls. The last poll conducted before the election (Public Policy Polling), 9/11-9/12) showed O'Donnell with a 47% to 44% advantage over Castle with 8% undecided, and a margin of error of roughly 4%. So how did O'Donnell beat her estimates? It could be that the 8% of formerly undecided voters decided to go with O'Donnell over Castle. However, I think the answer is probably turnout.

Approximately 57,582 registered Republicans voted in Tuesday's primary. An estimated 27,021 voted for Castle and 30,561 voted for O'Donnell; a vote difference of 3,540 (6% points). Interestingly enough, Castle received far more actual votes in the 2008 general election for Representative than O'Donnell received for Senate that same year, suggesting that Delawareans voted for Castle and Biden (or Castle and not O'Donnell). This splitting of the ticket in 2008 raises questions about how turnout might affect the state's mid-terms; especially across counties in the state. O'Donnell should expect that her win will move some Castle supporters to her Democratic opponent, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons.

I think turnout will be the key in November because some of the popular media arguments about what's going on in the state are somewhat untenable. The September PPP poll found that only 24% of Republicans consider themselves "members of the Tea Party," and a plurality of 47% felt the Republican Party was "about right" in terms of their ideology; 17% felt they were "too conservative." Approximately 42% of Republicans said that a Sarah Palin endorsement would not make a difference in their vote for a candidate, and 24% said it would make them "less likely" to vote for a candidate. Thus, I see no big Tea Party movement in terms of attitudes and beliefs. However, Tea Party funding is related to turnout.

According to the state of Delaware's Elections Commissioner, the 2010 Republican primary produced a 32% turnout rate. On the surface this might seem low; however, the turnouts for past Republicans primaries were 16% in 2008, 8% in 2006, 12% in 2004, 14% in 2002, and 16% in 2000. Thus, the 2010 primary doubled Republican turnout.

The PPP polling likely underestimated this higher than usual turnout when they calculated their likely voter estimate or in weighting their final estimates. So what does this mean going forward? It's likely that O'Donnell will continue to run the same type of campaign but receive more outside funding and attention. The interesting part will be how the electorate in Delaware, and the nation, responds to the results. Mid-term turnout percentages in the state usually hover around the mid to upper 40s, while in presidential election years, turnout is in the mid to high 60s.

Coons has been leading in the polls in all head to head match-ups against O'Donnell. And, in the general election, O'Donnell will have to convince independent voters, moderate Republicans, and Castle supporters that she will represent their interests. This will be an uphill battle given that she's already indicated that she feels she can win without "them" referring to the Republican Party Organization, and suggesting the GOP might be too lazy to help her.

All of this bodes well for Coons who will certainly win the Wilmington area, and much of the Wilmington suburbs which make up the largest portion of the state's electorate. But it's tough to gauge Democratic turnout in the state because Coons did not have a primary challenger, and thus we cannot use primary numbers as an indicator of enthusiasm. Traditionally, Republican turnout during the primaries is slightly higher than for Democrats, but in 2008 the latter's turnout was 12% points higher than the former's. O'Donnell's win could actually work to mobilize support for Coons. It will also be interesting to see if Castle's supporters, and perhaps Castle himself, will remain loyal to the party or decide to support Coons because he has governing experience and is not considered an outside candidate.

According to 2008 exit poll data on that year's Senate race, 75% of Republicans voted for O'Donnell, while about 25% voted for Joe Biden, who was also running for Vice President. Biden won the contest by nearly 30% points, 64% to 35%. More telling, approximately 38% of Democrats voted for Mike Castle over his Democratic challenger, Karen Hartley-Nagel. Half of the individuals who say they voted for Castle in 2008, also voted for Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, 36% of Democrats who voted for Biden also voted for Castle. This all suggests that Castle has good standing among Democrats, which could help Coons, who according to Public Policy Polling, in early August held a 31% approval rating with 39% saying they were "unsure" about their approval of him.

What does all of this signal?

First, the media will heavily scrutinize the race and the candidates. O'Donnell is particularly vulnerable because she is a woman (yes, sexism still exists), she has no governing experience, she is not well know or at least revered by the state and national GOP, and there are many questions about her personal and campaign finances, educational background, ethics issues related to non-profit work, past gender discrimination lawsuits, and her personal relationships. O'Donnell does appear to be media savvy, but as things heat up, those skills will be tested.

Second, Coons' single most important priority will need to be turnout. If he can mobilize support among the electorate in New Castle country, especially the suburbs of Wilmington, he will win the election. He should not ignore Kent and Sussex counties either; they hold more opportunities than barriers to his election. His message must be at least two-fold: he can govern and he will represent Delawareans with pride and uphold the reputation of the state. How he frames and packages those messages will be up to his campaign.

O'Donnell's single most important priority will be to somehow move slightly more to the ideological and political center, and make friends with the state and national party. The September PPP poll showed O'Donnell having strong support only among self-described conservatives. Conservatives make up the largest portion of the Republican Party in DE, but they are heavily outnumbered in the state when moderate Republicans are combined with all Democrats regardless of ideology.

Also, the outside funding by the Tea Party movement may become a problem if Delawareans, who traditionally like to handle their own politics, perceive too much outside influence. O'Donnell must now come up with solid policy proposals that will show she can actually be effective in the male dominated, seniority ruled world of the Senate. She also has weak support among seniors, who heavily favored Castle.

Finally, regardless of the outcome Delaware will elect someone other than Joe Biden for the first time in almost four decades. That's big.