Thursday, August 10, 2006

Joe, Chris, Bailey's ghost, and assorted refutable stats

Consider these items as footnotes to my print column today on the aftermath of Joe Lieberman's stunning defeat.

1. I mentioned how difficult the Connecticut situation has become for Lieberman's senior colleague, Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, because now he has to defend his party - and his party-endorsed Senate candidate, Ned Lamont - from the Lieberman charge that the Lamont forces are national security weenies. But, actually, Dodd's exasperation goes much deeper than that.

As friends of Dodd explained to me, even though the two senators get along, Lieberman has actually been a stone in Dodd's shoe for a long time. Dodd is a skilled political player, a former national Democratic party chairman, and he was a U.S. congressman back when Lieberman was just a state senator voting on bills about Sunday blue laws and recyclable bottles. In other words, Dodd has long nursed presidential ambitions, and seemed to have the seniority to go first.

But then junior senator Lieberman was plucked by Al Gore to be his running-mate in 2000 (largely because Lieberman had dissed Bill Clinton in a Senate floor speech during the Lewinsky scandal), a move that catapulted Lieberman ahead of Dodd in the national sweepstakes. After Gore-Lieberman faltered at the finish line, Dodd thought about running against President Bush in 2004 -- but again had to stand down because of Lieberman, who launched his own candidacy...a candidacy that went nowhere, because (as a preview of what happened this week in Connecticut) liberal primary voters who had no interest in nominating a pro-war, Bush-friendly Democrat.

Now we come to the present day. Dodd is now exploring the possibility of running for president in '08, planting some seeds with the Democrat grassroots by stressing his anti-Bush, antiwar credentials (he voted Yes on war authorization, but has since expressed regrets for having done so), and hoping to demonstrate his own clout at home by framing an antiwar message that the House Democratic candidates in his state can use successfully. Yet, again, the Lieberman stone is in his shoe, because the guy refuses to go away.

As one Dodd friend said to me, "This (Lieberman) thing is just killing him."

2. I mentioned, at the close of my print column, that in the old days of Connecticut politics, Democratic boss John Bailey would have cracked heads and told a loser to give it up in the name of party loyalty. The irony is that one of Joe Lieberman's longtime heroes was...John Bailey. (Indeed, much of Lieberman's losing vote tally on Tuesday night came from the remnants of the old Bailey party apparatus, in the rusting industrial towns of the Naugatuck Valley.)

Lieberman even wrote a couple books about Bailey, who died in 1975. I have one of them right here -- The Legacy, published in 1981. In the last chapter, there is an interesting passage. Notwithstanding Bailey's reputation for enforcing party loyalty, Lieberman writes this:

"He hated primaries...because he could never be certain that a primary would produce a candidate who could win an election. As he said colloquially of the candidates he disdained, 'These guys do good in a primary, but then in an election they don't do much.'"

Perhaps that explains in part why Lieberman declared, on Tuesday night, with reference to Ned Lamont's primary victory, "I cannot, I will not, let this result stand."

3. And perhaps Lieberman's independent Senate bid is overrated. In my print column, I mentioned that conservative analyst Byron York, at the National Review website, is skeptical that Lieberman can win. Now I also see that liberal analyst Bruce Shapiro, at The Nation website, thinks that Lieberman is actually "in free-fall...'Stay the course' is not a winning strategy in Iraq and not a winning strategy in Connecticut."

4. It was amazing yesterday to see Chris Matthews, on Hardball, lobbing softballs at Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith, acting as if the Lieberman camp had pulled off some kind of miraculous comeback. Matthews asked, "How did you close the gap?....How did you close so near to overtaking (Lamont)?"

This was a reference to the fact that Lieberman lost by four percentage points, in contrast to a poll last week that showed Lieberman trailing by 13. But the more pertinent opening question would have been: "Sean, how is it possible for a three-term senator, who has always won his races by 2-1 margins, and who, more importantly, was leading in the polls just 13 weeks ago by 46 points against a guy that nobody had ever heard of -- how do you explain the fact that your boss wound up the loser?"

I can answer that, since Sean Smith has now exited the Lieberman camp:
Incumbent hubris.

5. Lastly, there seems to be a move afoot, among some Lieberman fans in the conservative media, to delegitimize Lamont's victory, to simply explain it away. Case in point: the fact-challenged essay by political analyst Michael Barone, appearing today on that most Lieberman-friendly piece of real estate, the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While trying to advance his argument that Lieberman is a proud Democrat in the JFK tradition, he wrote that, in Tuesday's primary, Lieberman "carried by and large the same cities and towns that John F. Kennedy carried" in the 1960 election.

Well, that statement badly needs to be amended. JFK carried Hartford and New Haven. Lieberman lost both.

But here's the major stuff: Barone, who co-authors the Alamanac of American Politics, the purported bible of the political class, sought to dismiss Lamont's win by offering these two points: (a) "less than one-sixth of the registered voters took the trouble to cast their ballots in this contest," and (b) "Lamont thus got the votes of less than one-tenth of Connecticut voters."

The problem is, these stats don't hold up under scrutiny.

The first point (less than a sixth equals roughly 16 percent) would have been accurate only if all registered voters (2,086,000) were allowed to vote in a Connecticut Democratic primary. But the fact is, the party primary is only open to Democrats. So the eligible pool was only about 700,000. And since Lieberman and Lamont drew about 282,000 voters, that translates into a turnout percentage of 40 percent. The highest in Connecticut primary history.

So the facts foil Barone's second point. Since it was a closed primary, it's irrelevent to say that Lamont got the votes of "less than one-tenth (under 10 percent) of Connecticut voters." In reality, his total (146,000) was actually one-fifth (20 percent) of the eligible voters.

And if that still seems underwhelming consider this: George W. Bush, whom Barone generally defends at every turn, achieved his big breakthrough in 2000 by drawing 301,050 votes in the pivotal South Carolina GOP primary. That winter, roughly 2,100,000 voters could have participated in that open primary (the entire state electorate was eligible). Translation: Bush won one-seventh -- 14 percent -- of all eligible voters, thus greasing his path to the nomination.

That's less representative than Lamont's win, but you'll look in vain to find a Barone column that sought to delegitimize Bush's win.