Posted: July 28, 2005
POLITICS BY NUMBERS
By Celia Cohen
There were some scary numbers that came out of the 2004 election. An incumbent governor re-elected with barely 51 percent of the vote. An already microscopic 12-vote margin shrinking to three votes after a recount in a Sussex County Council race.
Those numbers were heart-stopping, but then the beat went on. Other numbers, however, could have life in state politics for some time to come -- haunting the Republicans if they hold up, as they have been, or the Democrats if they do not.
These are the numbers behind Delaware's shift from its status at the end of the 20th Century as a swing state, agreeably willing to vote for statewide candidates of either major party, to its new 21st Century identity as a blue state, inclined to favor Democrats over Republicans.
These numbers saved Ruth Ann Minner, the Democratic governor. They gave the Democrats a sweep of the New Castle County races. They propelled Democrat Matthew P. Denn over Republican David H. Ennis into the insurance commissioner's office in the only open statewide race.
These numbers were the turnout statistics in New Castle County, where almost two-thirds of the voters live and increasingly lean Democratic, swamping the Republican tendencies downstate in Kent County and Sussex County.
Here are the 2004 numbers that should chill Republicans and comfort Democrats:
There were 111,058 Democrats who turned out to vote in New Castle County, more than the total of 110,159 Republicans who were registered to vote. In other words, the Republican Party could have turned out every single one of its voters -- which of course never happens -- and still been about 900 voters down in the county.
Not all Democrats vote Democratic, not all Republicans vote Republican, and there are enough independent voters to have an impact, but those numbers can do nothing but cheer the Democratic Party.
"The Republicans have got to capture the vast majority of independents and turn out significantly more numbers than the Democrats, but in some districts that isn't possible," said James R. Soles, a political science professor emeritus from the University of Delaware.
The turnout statistics are newly available from the state Election Department in a computer printout called the "Age Group and Party Report," but neither party had to see the cold, hard numbers to know what was going on and react to it.
When the Democrats had an opening for their state chair earlier this year, they elected John D. Daniello, the New Castle County chair, with the hope of exporting the results there to the rest of the state. Meanwhile, the Republicans reconstituted their New Castle County operation, replacing an amorphous executive committee and centralizing control in a new leadership committee.
As William Swain Lee, the Republicans' 2004 gubernatorial candidate who led in the vote downstate but not upstate, said, "We can't carry this state without New Castle County."
The pattern became apparent in 2000 when Thomas R. Carper, then the Democratic governor, ousted William V. Roth Jr., a five-term Republican, in a battle of the titans for the U.S. Senate. Carper did it by running up his numbers upstate while losing downstate.
Roth's defeat was a shocking wakeup call, warning that even solid Republican incumbents not named Michael N. Castle could be in danger from a quality Democratic challenger and that Republicans running for open seats might not be long for this world.
So it has gone. In 2002 the trend nearly claimed Attorney General M. Jane Brady, a Republican seeking her third term. Democrat Carl Schnee was one of those respectable challengers -- a senior member of the bar with a brief stint as U.S. attorney and a former law partner of Mike Castle before his political career took off 25 years ago.
Schee ran almost 10,000 votes ahead of Brady in New Castle County, but his lead was neutralized downstate. Still, if Vivian A. Houghton of the Green Party had not siphoned away more than 13,000 votes, running to Schnee's left, he could have won. Brady polled 48 percent, Schnee 46 percent and Houghton 6 percent.
The 2004 election brought more of the same, perhaps the best example being the race for insurance commissioner. Denn, a former legal counsel to Minner, and Ennis, a retiring state representative, both were first-time statewide candidates.
Denn won with 53 percent of the statewide vote. He roared out to a lead of more than 36,000 votes upstate, winning 58 percent of the New Castle countywide vote. Ennis clobbered him downstate, taking 57 percent of the vote in Kent and Sussex, but it only amounted to a margin approaching 17,000 votes -- not even half of what Ennis needed to overtake Denn.
Denn said his concentration of New Castle County votes was more circumstantial than strategic. He was forced to focus his campaign upstate because he had a primary for the nomination against Karen Weldin Stewart, the Democrats' 2000 candidate for insurance commissioner. The battleground for it was almost exclusively New Castle County, where there were countywide primaries -- including a ferocious one for county executive -- and also some in Wilmington. By contrast, there were only four local primaries downstate.
"You've got to win the primary first," Denn said. "That just dictated that we spend almost all of our advertising money upstate. We didn't spend a dime in Kent or Sussex county until after the primary. People in New Castle County knew who I was and knew something about me before the people in Kent and Sussex did."
As powerful as the voter turnout numbers appear to be for the Democrats, they still are not destiny -- nothing that the right Republican candidate at the right time cannot overcome. That is the magic of politics.
"It's going to take a yeoman's effort. It's going to take some real savvy. It's almost going to take a 1972 Joe Biden strike, when someone catches lightning in a bottle," said Thomas S. Ross, who stepped down earlier this year as the New Castle County Republican co-chair.
Or something else. "You'd have to have a pretty bruised-up opponent," Denn said.
2004 VOTER TURNOUT
Source: Election Department