Patchwork Nation: Beware November Forecasts Made in May

BY dchinni  May 19, 2010 at 2:17 PM EDT

In a year where the biggest news is an unsettled electorate, everyone is looking for signposts and many think they saw them in Tuesday night’s primary results – particularly in the Senate primaries in Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

But in each case, those results came from closed primaries — where only registered members of each party can vote — and each contained some special circumstances.

At Patchwork Nation, we are as eager as anyone for indicators on where the electorate is going and there are some signs in Tuesday’s numbers. But it still may be a bit early for some of the large blanket statements like “the tea party has arrived” or “the establishment is on the ropes.”

A few primaries in a few states do not make a trend. And even in these results there are some mixed messages.

The tea party’s big night in Kentucky

The night’s biggest story came from Kentucky where Senate candidate Rand Paul, who trumpeted his ties to the tea party, stomped his GOP opponent, Secretary of State Trey Grayson, 59 percent to 35 percent. In his victory speech Paul used the oft-quoted tea party line about “taking our government back.”

But looking at the states through the Patchwork Nation prism, there were clearly different levels for support for Paul. His strongest support came from four county types – the growing Boom Towns, the wealthy Monied ‘Burbs, the big-city Industrial Metropolis and the Military Bastions. In all of those county types he won more than 60 percent of the vote.

Those numbers show a few trends of note.

First, in three of those county types the median household income is above the national average. Many have noted that members of the tea party movement tend to be wealthier than average. (In fact, our recent analysis of registered tea party members nationally showed the Boom Towns held the biggest areas of support.) In Kentucky at least that finding seems to hold.

But there is a second finding in these numbers too.

Those four county types where Paul won the biggest percentage of support averaged the lowest levels in turnout in the state. In other words, in those places in particular, Paul’s voters seemed more active than others, but voters there in general were not as engaged. It was not so much a march by the masses to take Washington back, but the mobilization of a smaller committed group of voters.

It’s not clear what that means for the fall or for the tea party. If November features an election with low turnout, Paul will be well-served by that trend. If more voters turn out – that means less committed voters as well as more committed ones – it may be less positive.

But the overall conservative trend in Kentucky will help Paul quite a bit in November. The state’s 52 Evangelical Epicenter counties hold the most registered voters. Paul captured 58 percent of their vote on Tuesday. That number’s not as high as it was in other county types, but it proves a tea party candidate can do well with socially conservative voters – at least in Kentucky or at least with Rand Paul.

Exit Specter

Up in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, the early analysis has focused on how Sen. Arlen Specter lost the Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak because he was a turncoat Republican. Many have noted how Sestak won by tying Specter to former President George W. Bush – a Republican.

But the results in Pennsylvania don’t show Sestak won because he carried the most reliably Democratic counties. In fact, Sestak won every one of the state’s 12 swing voting Monied ‘Burb counties. And Sestak won all but two of Pennsylvania’s 36 Service Worker Centers, which tend to be more conservative.

Specter won the reliably Democratic Industrial Metropolis of Philadelphia County. He won it by a wide margin, but it wasn’t enough to offset his losses everywhere else.

Looking at the results this way, Specter’s loss could more easily be attributed to Specter fatigue – he had served 30 years in the Senate after all. And when fall comes Sestak’s bases of support might look a lot better to Democrats, provided they can bring out the vote in Philadelphia.

Incumbents’ Reckoning?

Even the one message everyone has taken away from Tuesday — incumbents are in trouble — isn’t completely clear. Out in Pennsylvania’s 12th District, Democrat Mark Critz won the seat of his former boss, the late John Murtha, by essentially running as an incumbent — the heir to Murtha.

Does that mean Critz election proves some grand point? No. In a rough economy incumbents probably are in trouble in 2010. But it means the mood of the electorate is not necessarily as easy to measure this year as you might think.

And big proclamations out of Tuesday may not carry a lot of weight nationally come November.