Colin McEnroe: In handicapping races, there is no conventional wisdom
Let me tell you a little secret about those of us who opine about Connecticut politics. When it comes to municipal contests like the ones we saw last Tuesday, we often don’t know what we’re talking about.
It’s not entirely our fault. We talk to the smartest people we can find in each locale. But sometimes they don’t know what they’re talking about either.
One problem for all of us in that the numbers are too small. Here’s a useful comparison. In the gubernatorial vote of 2010, Dan Malloy’s winning margin over Tom Foley was 6,404. You remember what that felt like at the time. It was so close!
Like most elections, that one fell on a Tuesday. Foley did not concede until the following Monday. You couldn’t blame him. There had been Election Day chaos in Bridgeport. Which is sort of like saying, “There had been Bridgeport.” But, speaking of people not knowing what they’re talking about, Bridgeport election officials had seriously underestimated turnout and didn’t have enough ballots. Think about that.
Anyway, the point is: the margin was only 6,404. So close! Could we possibly be sure about the outcome?
Now think about municipal primaries. You know what we call 6,404 in those? Turnout. OK, maybe it’s not quite that bad, but Bridgeport had about 8,000 machine votes and 1,200 absentee ballots. (A little sympathy for Bridgeport election officials. In 2105, there were 12,000 machine votes in the primary. It’s hard to plan a cookout if you don’t know whether 80 people are showing up or 120. You don’t want to get stuck with six leftover quarts of Shop-Rite coleslaw.)
Prior to Tuesday I, who know basically nothing, talked to every smart person I could find. There was a conventional wisdom about New Haven and Bridgeport. New Haven would be close. The incumbent, Toni Harp, would probably edge out the challenger, Justin Elicker, and then go on to lose to him in the November. Unless Elicker narrowly triumphed on Tuesday. Toss-up. At WNPR, I soberly raised the question of what we would do if New Haven was too close to call at 10 p.m. when our radio and television live coverage was scheduled to end.
As you know, Elicker crushed Harp so badly — by a 2,000-vote margin — that New Haven was the first race called on Tuesday night.
In Bridgeport, the conventional wisdom couched the primary as a gimme putt for incumbent Joe Ganim over Marilyn Moore who by all accounts had run a slightly drowsy campaign. It turned out to be more like gimme shelter. Ganim lost the machine vote by a few hundred and had to make up the difference with absentee ballots.
You know that old saw: you don’t want to see how laws and sausage are made? You really don’t want to see how absentee ballots turn from caterpillars into butterflies. “What’s that, Mrs. Wisnewski? You want to vote for Wendell Wilkie? Well, he’s not ... actually Ganim is another name Mr. Wilkie likes to use. So if you just make a little smudgy thing there, it’ll be ‘Win With Wilkie!’ And about damn time, right?”
You know who else did not know what they were talking about? Moore’s campaign team. But first, an odd quirk of Connecticut election rules: for some reason, they make it way harder to get on a primary ballot than to get on a general election ballot. It doesn’t make any sense. If you win a primary, all you are is a candidate. If you win an election, you’re an office-holder.
And when I say “way harder”... Moore had to turn in 2,500 valid signatures to get on the primary ballot. This she did. She only needed 207 for the general election. She came up short. She thought she had enough, but only 168 signatures were accepted as legitimate. Apparently Bofa Deez Nutz is not an actual registered Democratic voter in Bridgeport.
Cue sound of me banging my head against the wall. 207! If Moore’s people had a collected general election signature every time they collected a primary signature, they would have had more than ten times what was needed.
And you’d think recent history would have taught a valuable lesson. In the last mayoral cycle, incumbent Bill Finch lost the primary. There were widespread suspicions that another line on the ballot — the Job Creation Party — was Finch’s back-up plan. A tip-off was the slogan of the endorsed JCP candidate, Rich DeParle: “He meets all the minimum requirements to be considered a human being!” But Finch’s people missed a critical deadline for swapping out the endorsement.
Think of it! But for a tiny bit of paperwork, Finch might have been mayor again. The world would have been completely different! Well, maybe not. But at least the staffer who screwed that up would still be alive.
The takeaway: nobody knows what they’re talking about. That’s why I never should have believed the guy who assured me the Middletown primary would be decided by penalty kicks.
Colin McEnroe’s column appears every Sunday, his newsletter comes out every Thursday and you can hear his radio show every weekday on WNPR 90.5. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign up for his newsletter at http://bit.ly/colinmcenroe.