Mark Pryor’s (D-INC, Arkansas-SEN) attempt to squeeze votes from the turnout turnip.

Like many another pundit, I read with some bemusement Molly Ball’s somewhat… accepting article about how embattled Democrat Mark Pryor plans to win the Arkansas election via turnout.  After I finished chuckling over this bit…

No sign announces the purpose of this little storefront, squeezed between a Bestway Rent to Own and a Rent-a-Center in a dilapidated shopping center. But the words hand-lettered in black and red marker on three pieces of paper taped to the window—”Register to Vote Here”—and a cluster of placards for candidates give it away: It is a Democratic Party field office.

Democrats aren’t advertising this office and 39 others like it that are scattered around Arkansas—in fact, their locations are a closely guarded secret.

…because, after all, the field office isn’t exactly a ‘closely guarded secret’ if it’s being featured in a Atlantic article (or, indeed, has a big Pryor sign in the window) – anyway, after I finished snickering I asked myself; just how likely is the Democratic scenario, anyway?

Turns out… not very likely, actually. Math is kind of getting in the way of the Democrats here.

Below is a quick spreadsheet of the relevant elections in Arkansas from 2002 to 2012. While nobody really talks about the governor’s race in the context of Pryor’s chances, I wanted to include it so that people could see what off-year elections generally look like in Arkansas.  Turns out that the trendlines are pretty stable. [All numbers are in thousands.]

Year Race GOP Dem Other Turnout
2002 SEN 373 435 0 808
2002 GOV 427 378 0 805
2004 SEN 458 581 0 1039
2004 PRES 573 470 12 1055
2006 GOV 315 431 29 775
2008 SEN 0 804 207 1011
2008 PRES 638 422 16 1076
2010 SEN 452 288 40 780
2010 GOV 263 503 1 767
2012 PRES 648 394 27 1069

Total turnout in Presidential years is a bit over a million, and around eight hundred thousand in off-year elections.  This is true even for races like the 2008 Senate one; in that one Pryor ran without a Republican opponent… which merely meant that the Greens got their best showing in Arkansas ever. So I think that it’s reasonable to think that we should see about eight hundred thousand again this cycle.  You should also note that split tickets are apparently the rule in Arkansas, even if you assume that 2008 was an unrepeatable fluke; candidates haven’t been able to rely on taking advantage of popular up- (or down-) ticket politicians.  In other words? Mark Pryor is on his own.

And that’s his problem. Arkansas has trended more Republican over the last decade; and if Pryor’s goal is to recreate 2008′s Democratic turnout then he’s committed to a strategy where he still loses the election.  Mark Pryor loses the election more closely than I’d like, but Mark Pryor still loses.  The Arkansas Republican party will still generate enough turnout to beat him on that.  Note that this is not about spirit, not about organization, and not about wanting it more.  This is about math. Since 2004: typical Arkansas Republican Senatorial turnout > typical Arkansas Democratic Presidential turnout.

So what Mark Pryor needs to do is to somehow recreate the Democrat’s 2010 gubernatorial showing. The problem there? Well, basically, it’s that Mark Pryor isn’t Mike Beebe.  Beebe is personally popular*, and one reason why Beebe is popular is because he does things that Republicans like (like cut taxes) or at least tolerate (like compromise on Medicaid expansion).  Mark Pryor’s recent decision to wholeheartedly embrace Obamacare has pretty much eliminated any chance of him following Beebe’s lead… which I suppose is one reason why nobody’s really suggesting that Pryor do that.

None of this means that Tom Cotton – who you should vote for, if you can legally vote for in Arkansas – is an absolute shoo-in to win this election.  Incumbency is a strong advantage.  But Arkansas is not a state where it is sufficient for Democrats to turn out their Presidential-year base.  It simply is not enough.

Moe Lane (crosspost)

*And term-limited, thank God.  And will be almost 70 in 2016, also thank God.

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