A Public Policy Polling poll done for Chuck Hassebrook for Governor found that the Nebraska gubernatorial election is a lot closer than what we would expect. Republican nominee Pete Ricketts leads the Democratic nominee 42-38, with 8% showing support for the Libertarian candidate Mark Elworth. Like much of the country, Nebraska has seen itself become hyperpartisan over recent years. The state has become a reliable Republican state in nearly all elections in recent years. The last two governors of Nebraska have been Republicans, although the state alternated between Republican and Democratic governors for the previous ten. The last time a Democratic candidate won either the statewide election for Senate or Governor was 2006, with the conservative Democratic Senator Ben Nelson. It would seem that a Republican would easily win election in the new hyperpartisan climate in Nebraska. Why is Pete Ricketts struggling or, perhaps more accurately, why is Chuck Hassebrook succeeding?
While the June poll, linked above, indicates a four point race, the Cook Political Report lists the race as solid Republican. 48% of registered voters in Nebraska identify as Republicans while 31% are members of the Democratic Party. If I was a member of the Ricketts campaign, I'd be curious if Public Policy Polling oversampled Democratic voters in Nebraska. In fact, that's similar to what team Ricketts said to the Lincoln Journal Star. Ricketts's campaign manager was quoted as saying,"we're not surprised a Democrat polling firm would yield positive results for the campaign asking for it."
Prior to the Public Policy Polling poll, there was a poll that was put out by Rasmussen polling on the race. Rasmussen frequently favors Republicans in their polls for whatever reason; this poll was no different. Rasmussen polling gave Ricketts a 7 point lead in the race, showing the race at 47-40. Nate Silver found that Rasmussen had a bias of 3.7 points towards Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, it's safe to assume that the bias is still somewhat there during polling for the mid-terms. (Public Policy Polling was found to have a bias of 1.6 points towards Romney).
The Ricketts campaign is right to question the integrity of internal polls that are made available to the media as they often favor the campaign releasing them. This is part of the reason why polling is important. The aggregation of polls will show what's really there; properly adjusting outlier polls is also important. With the only polls from the state showing essentially the same thing, we can probably conclude that Hassebrook is within a few points of Ricketts.
The Primary difference
According to the poll, Ricketts is not facing too great of party unity. 64% of Republicans are committed to Ricketts at this point. This shouldn't be too surprising after a competitive Republican primary that saw Ricketts barely edge Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning based on generous support from the Omaha metropolitan area. Ricketts won the Republican primary by about 2,000 votes, earning 26.5% of the votes. He won Douglas County by over 4,000 votes and Sarpy County by over 1,000 votes. Rural voters and voters outside of the Omaha metro area were more likely to vote for Jon Bruning.
In 2006, Ricketts ran for Senator of Nebraska against the incumbent Ben Nelson. After spending over $10 million of his own money for the election, he received only 36% of the vote. This was the worst showing in the state for a Republican since 1970. While he did somewhat better than he did in the primary this year, in Western Nebraska, it was an embarrassing showing for someone who spent this much. He blamed this on the perception of Nebraska voters that he was trying to buy their votes.
Political scientists who have looked at Nebraska have noticed something odd. It's not as much of a microcosm of politics as the rest of the country. Throughout the country, Super PACs and outside spending groups have influenced the elections while trying to say that they represent the best interests of the given district. Nebraskans generally do not like outsiders coming in to try and take over their political campaigns. In the 2012 Republican primary for Senate, Don Stenberg was endorsed by powerful PACs and Super PACs to receive the nomination but he fell short. Deb Fischer won the nomination and ran the entire general election on the idea that her challenger, Bob Kerrey, was an outsider and not a true Nebraskan. The issue seemed to be pretty effective. While Ben Sasse bucked the trend of national endorsements being a failure in Nebraska, his endorsement sheet was full of local and Nebraska politicians. Ricketts's most notable endorsement from the state of Nebraska is former Governor Kay Orr's endorsement or perhaps Lee Terry, the member of Congress representing the Omaha metro-area. The Hassebrook campaign understands this weariness of the voters, at a recent campaign stop saying, "[Ricketts's] dad wants to buy him a job at the top of this state." In an interview with Bloomberg, Hassebrook was also quoted as saying "voters see those [large-money] ads as an implication of who you are and that you're trying to buy the race."
The numbers game
In 2010, out of the over 300,000 registered voters in Douglas County, 125,000 voters were Democratic Party members and 121,000 were registered with the Republican Party. 2010 was a wave year for the Republican Party. In elections across the nation, unpopular Republican candidates were able to win elections based on the massive unpopularity of the President, Barack Obama and the looming specter of horror, Obamacare. This was no different in Nebraska.
Lee Terry, the Representative of Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, had barely won re-election in 2008, winning 52-48 over Jim Esch (swoon) and would barely win re-election in 2012 over John Ewing 51-49, somehow managed to beat the pro-life Democrat challenger Tom White 61-39. Many pundits will tell you that the mid-term elections are, by nature, more conservative than the presidential years because Republicans show up to the polls. This combined with the massive unpopularity of the sitting President and a law that galvanized the public led to a perfect storm in 2010.
Dave Heineman who was massively popular in Nebraska ran for re-election in 2010. He trounced the Democratic nominee, winning 74% of the vote and every county in the state. In Douglas County, which is represented by Lee Terry, Heineman won 67% of the vote, a full 7 points below the rest of the state. In Lancaster County, the other metropolitan area (where Lincoln is), Heineman won 61% of the vote or 13% below the rest of the state.
In a perfect storm year for the Republican candidate, a very popular incumbent was polling well below the rest of the state in its conservativeness on election day in the two most popular areas of the state. As mentioned previously, Ricketts's biggest support comes from Douglas County. This is an area of the state where a Democratic candidate will do appreciably better than the rest of the state. Lancaster County was not a hotbed of support for Ricketts in the Republican primary, as he finished in third garnering 20.66% of the vote.
Younger voters, which usually are more liberal voters, tend to have a higher turnout in more competitive elections. The idea is that younger people are convinced that their votes actually matter. The cause and effect of this seems muddled. The political science literature indicates that those people who voted in competitive elections as their first election or close to their first election are more likely to vote in the future. For those in my age group, those are people who voted for the first time in 2008, 2010, and/or 2012. Two of those elections, at least at the Congressional level for Douglas County, were two of the most competitive elections in the country. Theoretically, if the political science literature is correct (which it almost always is) this will give a small boost to Hassebrook.
The rural areas of Nebraska is where the biggest support for the Republican Party comes from. Hassebrook is from a rural community and his family has been farming there for over a century. In addition, he served on the Nebraska Rural Development Comission, US Department of Agriculture National Commission on Small Farms, and many other boards to help him with the rural vote. Ricketts, meanwhile, could not even garner plurality support in the rural counties of Nebraska in a Republican primary. If Nebraska is going to elect a Democratic governor at some point in the near future, it will be this year.
So, you're saying there's a chance
Near the end of 2013, Wendy Davis was mentioned as a viable candidate for Governor in Texas. She, of course, is a Democrat running in a very red, conservative state. The idea was that Davis could help shift Texas blue. Nate Cohn, now of The New York Times, scoffed at the idea and then pointed to the number on primary day in Texas when Greg Abbott secured the Republican nomination. His point was that there are just too many Republicans in Texas for Wendy Davis to be able to win.
Nebraska's registered voter population is just over 1.2 million. Nearly a quarter of these voters are in the Douglas County area. This area, while being Ricketts's biggest base of support, also tends to be among the most liberal areas of the state. If the Hassebrook campaign and by extension the Democratic Party can help get out the vote, Hassebrook has a realistic shot. A Democratic candidate needs to be able to make inroads to the rural population of Nebraska to be able to win the election. Ricketts has left the door open with his underwhelming performance in the Republican Party and his inability to connect with the voters, so far. This leaves a golden opportunity for Hassebrook to be able to steal votes away from the traditional Republican base.
There's a lot of if's in there. Crazier things have happened. A competitive gubernatorial election in Nebraska probably seemed insane to many, even just last year. This is me hedging my bets at the end. I think Hassebrook has a real shot. In a podcast that was recorded but never posted in January (because of my technical inabilities to do anything) I predicted Hassebrook to win. This will sound either incredibly smart or incredibly foolish in November. I am sticking with it.