Home > Applying Political Science, California Politics > More on Jerry McNerney’s Big Win

More on Jerry McNerney’s Big Win

For all his strength as a fundraiser ($2.6 million as of Oct. 17; $5.6 million with outside money added in) and his admirable qualities as a candidate, Ricky Gill did slightly worse than either of Jerry McNerney’s other recent challengers. In 2008, Dean Andal received 45% of the vote. In 2010, David Harmer received 47% of the vote. Ricky Gill got just 44% of the vote.

Why did Ricky Gill do so poorly, especially since he was a much better candidate than either Andal or Harmer? While Gill is ideologically out of step with the district (far more conservative), I don’t think that’s the explanation. Gill and his campaign did a good job dissembling on that fact and emphasizing those dimensions and issues that cast Gill in a positive light.

I think the story is Gill’s strategic choice to cast himself as the “San Joaquin” candidate. Boiled down to its essence, Gill’s campaign message was, “I am from San Joaquin; my opponent is not.” Gill emphasized his ties to Lodi and the local agriculture community. There are two (three) problems with this message as far as CD-9 is concerned:

First, while agriculture is an important part of the San Joaquin economy, it’s not the whole of the economy. There are a lot of other economic interests–especially the Port of Stockton–that are important. Gill essentially wrote those off in his campaign.

Second, and relatedly, a lot of the district is outside San Joaquin County. About 30 percent of the district lives in Contra Costa County–outside the valley that Gill so emphasized in his campaign–and Contra Costa went heavily for McNerney (59-41). Contra Costa supplied over 70 percent of McNerney’s margin of victory over Gill. Again, Gill wrote off a large portion of the electorate with his primary campaign message.

Update 2: Given McNerney’s advantage in Contra Costa County, and assuming the same level of turnout in San Joaquin, Gill needed to win at least 54.5% of the San Joaquin vote. He didn’t come close to that.

The third problem for Gill–not related to the strategic choice his campaign made–was that he is a Republican running in a Democratic district at a time when party labels are very important to voters. San Joaquin County voted 53-44 for President Obama. It voted 52-48 for McNerney. In that regard, Gill did well. Ultimately, when combined with the strategic miscalculation, though, it proved fatal.

Edit/Update 1: In the background is also the fact that Jerry McNerney ran a very effective, low-key, and workman-like campaign that did all the things it was supposed to do. It registered voters. It targeted its appeals well. It used valence issues (Gill is too young and inexperienced) effectively. These are important contributors to this election’s outcome. I think the main story given Gill’s strengths, however, is that Gill made a major strategic mistake and it cost him important votes.

Update 3: See here for some more thoughts.

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  1. November 7, 2012 at 2:01 pm | #1

    Poorly studied, analyzed and frankly it’s too early for this type of analysis, but before this gathers any moss, I’ll add a few facts.

    If you think the Gill campaign wrote off the Port of Stockton and trade, then you weren’t paying close attention to the ads, which featured the port, and in the mail over and over. That is why the Gill campaign did well in San Joaquin despite having large Hispanic and Asian voting populations. You also apparently didn’t notice Delta-specific cable and furious mail messaging in Contra Costa County that was different for both campaigns than in other counties.

    Moreover, if you look at the map, this is not the same district Harmer ran in. It is a different district – and it was a Presidential year that increases turnout and tends to nationalize races.

    Yet despite a massive Democratic registration disadvantage, the emphasis on local versus outsider wasn’t a strategic mistake – it was the specific reason that the race was statistically tied in bipartisan polls until the closing days. This contrast was also the message frame cited by national handicappers – who gather insight from both sides – as they were moving the race towards Gill in their final writeups, while the DCCC was making additional buys just days out to push back.

    Short story: Four shifts in seven weeks. Two large, one smaller, then one final partisan move that coincided with the final Presidential move.

    I cant blame you for not knowing these things, but for an academic, I’m surprised that you haven’t sought a more thoughtful and studied approach to analyzing this race. There was a lot going on in this very interesting, textured race that you didn’t notice or observe.

  2. Prof. Keith Smith
    November 7, 2012 at 3:35 pm | #2

    I agree that it was an interesting race. That’s why I’ve been following it so closely since the summer of 2011 when Gill formed his exploratory committee. Gill’s success as a fundraiser and his tenacity as a campaigner made this race worth paying attention to.

    I disagree, however, that it is too early for this kind of analysis. We know what the vote was. We know who won. We know where the votes came from. It’s perfectly reasonable to start drawing conclusions at this point.

    The DCCC had a district poll that had McNerney up by nine points in the middle of October. That poll turned out to be much closer to the truth than Gill’s own poll from earlier in the month. That poll showed him up by a point. The DCCC poll was also closer to the truth than my own read of the contest. I personally thought the race was much tighter than it turned out to be. Even last week I was saying the Gill could win. (There are posts on this site saying that.)

    The structure of the district map is different is the core of my argument. (The difference between 2010 and 2012 doesn’t negate the fact that Gill performed worse than Harmer and Andal relative to McNerney.) Gill had a near single-minded focus on San Joaquin County. Every mailer and email I received emphasized his ties to the Valley, often with lovely photos of him in vineyards. Every (positive) commercial he aired did the same.

    I think the insider vs. outsider strategy (I am from here, he’s not), though, was a smart choice for Gill _only if_ the district was just San Joaquin. It’s not, however. A significant portion is outside the valley, and the part that is not in the valley largely won the election for McNerney. McNerney beat Gill by 13,000 votes according to the most recent results, 9,000 of which came from Contra Costa. Gill would have had to beat McNerney by a large margin in San Joaquin to counter that vote total. He didn’t. He lost.

    I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, but I think Contra Costa is a more important part of the story than has been the case so far.

  3. November 7, 2012 at 4:26 pm | #3

    In the Contra Costa County portion of CD9 – McCain received 37% of the vote and Whitman received 40%. Gill’s 41% was a respectable, even slightly overperforming baseline, and represents a rough split or narrow win of independents – which wouldnt happen if these voters were rejecting the San Joaquin candidate in favor of the Alameda one.

    Registration and turnout composition in the Valley was a higher hurdle to overcome, particularly in a presidential year. When the late partisan consolidation move happened, that was the difference, as it was in other CA congressional races that the GOP lost.

    With the current presidential results, this seat might become Cook PVI+6 versus the +2/+1 from McNerney’s prior district that included more of the East Bay. Therein lies the result disparity and the reason that comparisons to past races in past districts requires comparisons that arent even ‘apples to oranges’ – they are ‘apples to orangutans.’ This district is just defining its own personality for the decade.

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      November 7, 2012 at 5:32 pm | #4

      Obviously you have access to more, and more specific, data than I do. All I can talk about and react to is what I saw in the public domain. If you’re willing to talk about it, I’d love to hear more. (My gravitar has my contact info.) I’m especially interested in the “Four shifts in seven weeks. Two large, one smaller, then one final partisan move that coincided with the final Presidential move.”

      I agree that next cycle this district probably won’t be viewed as as winnable for a Republican. Again, I was frankly surprised by the margin of victory. This portion of the Valley (Stockton) seems increasingly Democratic, and the Contra Costa numbers are ugly for any Republican. Given your comparisons, 41% for Gill in CC is respectable. I’m curious how hard the campaign pushed there, though, given what I saw here.

  1. November 9, 2012 at 10:23 am | #1
  2. November 9, 2012 at 10:55 am | #2
  3. November 10, 2012 at 9:45 am | #3

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