Reports of Cicilline Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

For nearly his entire first term in Congress, pollsters and pundits have questioned David Cicilline’s chances at re-election. Obscenely low approval ratings (below 20%) in February 2012 had many across Rhode Island and the country sounding the Democrat’s death knell. Along with my union, I supported his re-election — but I have to admit that secretly I held more than a few doubts about whether or not he could pull it off.

Altered Beast

But in what was perhaps the best comeback since Lazarus (or at least Altered Beast, for Sega Genesis fans), Cicilline won. In nearly every city & town across the district, he increased his margin of victory compared with 2010 and ran up the score on Republican Brendan Doherty, 53% to 41%.

I’d like to offer a few quick reflections on how he won, and on why many of us were so surprised at the outcome (in my case, pleasantly so):

  • Cicilline and his team deserve a lot of credit for their relentless campaigning. Judging from his Twitter feed, he must have attended hundreds of community events, senior centers meet & greets, cultural festivals, house parties, and more. (And OMG I know I’m not the only one who loved this tweet.) The importance of their ground game and strong GOTV operation cannot also be understated.
  • He endured some ugly and baseless attacks from his opponents – and it might have helped him. Gemma’s ridiculous “voter fraud” theatrics were basically the political equivalent of a teenage prank: fill a paper bag with dog crap, place it on Cicilline’s stoop, light it on fire, ring the doorbell and run away. Only problem for Gemma is that the bag was empty, and he was still holding a turd. His rants generated sympathy for Cicilline, whose primary triumph actually gave him a head of steam heading into the general election.
  • Doherty’s attacks were not as stupid, but they were far uglier. I’m not sure if they went as far as to hurt Doherty, but they obviously didn’t help him that much, either — and the Cicilline camp had a quick & nimble response that pivoted right back to his central campaign message. Kudos to whoever did the campaign’s video work.
  • Despite the target on his back, Cicilline scored a higher percentage than he did in 2010 – and got 20,000 more votes than he did 2 years ago. Remarkably, Doherty only got 6,000 more votes than Loughlin did in 2010 – despite raising and spending significantly more than Loughlin, in addition to the help & resources he got from the NRCC. Not good. It would be cool to see a breakdown of the total money each campaign spent in relation to the total votes it received – an electoral ROI, if you will. Everyone knows that money matters in elections, but (as I have previously written) the Beatles were right that it can’t buy you love. (11/9 Update: here is a cool breakdown that gauges independent expenditure totals in relation to electoral wins/losses. Can you guess how much money Karl Rove pissed away?)
  • Doherty really had trouble telling people who he was — perhaps he assumed that everyone already knew? If his campaign had looked at the numbers, they would have found that in WPRI’s September 2012 poll, 31% of voters did not have an opinion of him, and 20% had a negative opinion. In their late October poll - conducted less than 2 weeks before the election - 24% of voters still did not have an opinion of him and 25% had a negative opinion. Don’t look now, but that means you are getting defined by your opponent!  Also not good. (Cicilline’s job approval ratings between September and October, meanwhile, are trending upwards).
  • It’s no state secret that Cicilline benefited from Presidential turnout, and in all likelihood from RI’s “straight party” voting option (those breakdowns should become available eventually). I am interested to see how strong the two candidates fared with mail/absentee ballots, as there are obvious benefits to starting election day with a huge lead — so hopefully the Board of Elections will finish counting those ballots at some point soon.
  • Common wisdom is that redistricting made CD-1 a more Democratic-leaning district by swapping parts of Northern RI out in exchange for parts of South Side of Providence, where many Latinos (who formed a large part of Cicilline’s original Providence mayoral coalition in 2002) live. However, Dan McGowan correctly pointed out that Cicilline would have won even if no CD-1 voter in Providence had cast a ballot at all.
  • The other element worth discussing is that by no means do Democrats have an absolute, permanent lock over these South Providence precincts or over Latino voters per se. In the 2010 RI Governor’s race, for example, voters in heavily-Latino precincts in Providence that had previously been traditional Democratic strongholds overwhelmingly chose Chafee over Caprio (a right-leaning, and now former, Democrat). Part of that was Shove-It-Gate, but a more important factor in the Latino community was Chafee’s early commitment to rescind Governor Carcieri’s Executive Order targeting undocumented immigrants (which Caprio intended to keep in place). Which leads me to…
  • When Chafee did in fact rescind the anti-immigrant executive order on his first day in office, as head of the state police Doherty had a public flare-up with him — and Doherty soon thereafter resigned. Latinos took notice and remembered. Add to this the overwhelming anti-Republican sentiment among Latinos nationally (guess the feeling is mutual, eh, GOP?), and Doherty was left with a long Calle Broad to hoe. And if Tuesday’s numbers don’t speak loudly enough, check out this report from Phil Marcelo with Doherty doing his best to win over Latinos (hint: it didn’t go very well).
  • Two final thoughts, in relation to the polling numbers being “wrong” and why many of us chewed our nails off on this one. As far as I know WPRI-12 was the only local channel to conduct public polls in the race – and they did six of them, beginning in May 2011. I’m sure it is difficult and expensive to do polls, as well as trying to ensure that they accurately reflect who lives and will be voting in the district. I’m not a pollster, but my hunch tells me that they struggle with ensuring Latino/Spanish-speaking voters are included in the sample, not to mention young people/cell-phone-only-users (whose support surely also boosted Cicilline’s totals).
  • It must be especially challenging if you are the only news outlet who is doing any polling. While I appreciate all of our state’s political reporters & analysts, let’s be honest and admit that Channel 12′s polling work is a great public service that all local media draw upon. (I was gonna say it’s the closest thing we have locally to Nate the Great, but that might cause certain egos to inflate beyond the recommended PSI.) Despite the competitive nature of the news business, perhaps there is room for some collaboration/innovation to go deeper & broader with polls in our state’s races. Given shrinking investments in news and layoffs at other outlets, perhaps not.

Anyway, all sides of this battle will have lots of lessons to draw from the outcome here in Rhode Island, as well as nationally. It remains to be seen, of course, if any of us will.

Related posts:
  1. Cicilline Leads Doherty in Third Poll Since Primary
  2. Rethinking the Cicilline and Doherty Race

Virginian by birth, Rhode Islander by choice. Organizer at SEIU District 1199NE, homebrewer of beer, and haphazard gardener. The views expressed here are my own, especially the snarky ones. T: @chasbwalker

One response to “Reports of Cicilline Death Were Greatly Exaggerated”

  1. Thom Cahir

    Chas, stop it, you’re getting me all hot and bothered using terms like “Political ROI” and “Calle Broad.”

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