More on McNerney v. Gill

In a previous post, I argued that Ricky Gill’s campaign made a strategic error in defining him as the San Joaquin candidate. (Here’s what I mean by that.) The argument got some blowback from Gill’s campaign consultant in the comments and Mike Fitzgerald at the Record. Since, admittedly, I oversold the argument in my first post I want to provide some context and elaborate on it a little more here.

It was always going to be hard for Ricky Gill to win his contest against Jerry McNerney. There were three primary strategic challenges facing Gill at the start of the contest:

1) Jerry McNerney was the incumbent. The maps below show McNerney’s old district (CD-11) and his new district (CD-9). Although the two differ in important ways, including the fact that McNerney’s old residence is not in CD-9, most of the new district overlaps the old one. Most voters in the new CD-9 previously saw McNerney’s name on their ballots.

CD-11 (McNerney's prior district)

McNerney’s old district, CD-11

McNerney’s new district (CD-9)

It is hard for challengers, in any context, to beat incumbents. Political scientist Gary Jacobson describes three primary advantages they have over challengers: (1) Incumbents are able to build a positive brand within the district by providing services and benefits by virtue of holding office. As an example of this, prior to the election, McNerney’s office organized a major job fair for San Joaquin businesses and residents. Over 4,000 people attended the event. That’s a lot of potential good will, and it’s something that Gill in his role as challenger could not do. (2) Incumbents know how to win an election. They’ve done it before. They have built personal constituencies in their districts. They know how to organize and run a successful campaign. They know what their own weaknesses are as candidates. (3) Incumbents, by virtue of (1) and (2) as well as their ability to raise significant amounts of money, scare off quality would-be challengers. People who stand a good chance of winning against an incumbent tend not to challenge the incumbent because they begin the contest at a disadvantage.

2) The district is moderately Democratic. The two-party vote (Democratic v. Republican) in the new district was 58-42 for Pres. Obama in 2008 and 55-45 for Gov. Brown in 2010. In addition, the new district leans more Democratic than McNerney’s old district was. That district voted 55-45 for Pres. Obama but 51-49 for Meg Whitman. At a time when party labels are very important to voters, it would be hard for any Republican, especially one as conservative as Gill is, to win in the district.

3) Ricky Gill has never held elected office. In political science terms, he was not a quality challenger. This was his first attempt to win an election. Immediately prior to running for office, Gill had been a law student at UC Berkeley. He barely met the constitutional age requirement for serving in Congress. While the campaigns quibbled over whether Gill had ever held a full-time job, the fact that they were quibbling over it meant Gill had relatively little real-world work experience. None of these things meant that Gill would not be a good member of the House, but they did mean that he had little in the way of a personal constituency within the district to draw on as a candidate.

Those were the major strategic challenges facing Gill at the start of the contest, and most challengers in this set of circumstances should expect to lose. None of these challenges meant Gill could not win, however. Challengers have won facing worse conditions. Indeed, in the face of these challenges, Gill did remarkably well. As of the last filing, he had raised over $2.6 million. The National Republican Congressional Committee designated Gill a Young Gun. It, along with the Chamber of Commerce, more than doubled Gill’s campaign resources. Several organizations (e.g., Cook and Rothenberg) put the district on their watch lists as a result of Gill’s strengths as a candidate and the campaign’s efforts. The challenges, however, did mean it would be hard for Gill to win.

When I argued that the Gill campaign made a strategic miscalculation, it was against this background that I think the error was made. Writing off a significant portion of the district (Contra Costa) by explicitly defining yourself as part of another portion (San Joaquin), even if that part of the district is more likely to support you, only makes your chances of winning worse. Gill could have run on the same set of issues (e.g., anti-peripheral canal, pro-free trade, better support for the housing sector, greater support for agriculture, etc.) and made the same arguments about McNerney (e.g., we don’t need to import our congressman) without so clearly defining himself as just the San Joaquin candidate. Challengers in this strategic environment need to fight for every possible vote no matter where they are in the district. Gill didn’t and, more importantly, he may have actively set himself against a significant part of the district. That, in my mind, was the strategic mistake.

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