How Much Did Straight-Ticket Voting Kill Rhode Island’s Republicans?
The casino got crushed by a bigger margin than anyone expected, even though the result was consistent with every poll taken in the final weeks. At the same time, the Governor’s race ended up much closer than expected, Elizabeth Roberts won by a bigger margin than projected, and Ralph Mollis won a race that many people thought his opponent would win. The GOTV for the casino was supposedly substantial, yet the casino race was the race that closed the least (as in not-at-all) relative to publicly-released polling. How do we explain all of this?
Obviously, part of the problem was that assumptions made by casino supporters about who would support them weren’t valid. One insightful observer of RI politics suggested to me that casino proponents drastically underestimated how much living through the 60s and 70s made a large segment of the electorate leery of officially sanctioning potentially addictive behavior.
But there’s another piece of this puzzle, beyond the failure of GOTV targeting. Voter turnout last night was at Presidential election year levels. The pro-casino targeting may not have had any association with support for Question 1, but it did probably mobilize a bunch of people to vote in a mid-term election who usually don’t. What were these politically disengaged voters likely to do with the non-casino part of their ballots? I’m willing to bet that because of the sour mood towards Republicans in the country and/or because casino supporters came from demographic groups not traditionally friendly to Republicans, many of them picked the straight-ticket Democratic option available to them.
Straight ticket D voters would skew the results of candidate races, without changing the results of the casino ballot. More straight ticket D voters than usual, though they had nothing against candidates in down-ticket races, probably cost Sue Stenhouse the Secretary of State’s race, cost Allan Fung the Cranston Mayoral race, and made races of many incumbent legislators thought to be safe much closer than expected.
I called the BOE for stats on how many straight ticket were cast, but they don’t keep the information. It would be interesting if Darrell West and Victor Profughi and other Rhode Island pollsters added a question about “are you planning to vote the straight ticket Democratic or Republican option” to their standard surveys. And if exit pollers tracked this information, I’ll bet they would have found many more straight-ticket voters than usual this year.
However big the effect was, there is an important lesson for the Rhode Island Republican party here. Unless RI Republicans can convince the legislature to remove the straight-ticket option from the ballot (HAHAHAHAHAHA), the stealth strategy — “let’s not tell people that we’re Republicans when we run in an election, because that way we’re more likely win over independents” — will never work. To be competitive on a regular basis, RI Republicans are going to have to convince more people to actually become (or at least to like) Republicans. They are going to have to create a pool of voters who pick the all-Republican option on their ballots, cancelling out the all-Democratic voters, and leaving the final decision to the voters who actually fill out their ballots candidate-by-candidate.
It won’t be easy, but the task is not as insurmountable as people might at first think. But it will never happen until Rhode Island Republicans make a decision to consistently stand for something that makes voters want to join their party for the long term and not for just an election day.