A Sharper Take on the Razorback State

NYT notes that the vote in Arkansas upended expectations

Campaign Desk noted yesterday how the actual results in Arkansas’s Senate primary complicate the national narratives about an anti-incumbent wave and the rise of political activists. So it’s only fair to note that some national outlets are offering a fuller picture of the outcome there.

For example, the initial story from the Associated Press declared in its lead that Arkansas voters had delivered “a muddled verdict on establishment politicians.” It’s a fair point: after all, Bill Halter, the Democratic challenger who pushed incumbent Blanche Lincoln into a run-off, was an aide in the Clinton administration. Halter may have claimed the “outsider” mantle, but he’s no neophyte. Meanwhile, in the GOP Senate primary—which has been almost entirely neglected by the national media—voters went resoundingly for Rep. John Boozman, a five-term congressman who’s as plain-vanilla D.C. establishment as you can get. No Tea Party insurgency here.

Then, a good, short dispatch by Shaila Dewan in today’s New York Times took note of the key fact about the Democratic contest: at least some of Halter’s supporters turned out to be not who we thought they were:

When word circulated early Tuesday evening that Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas had won the early and absentee vote in Pulaski County, the county that includes Little Rock, her supporters took it as a sign that she would pull off a decisive win in the Democratic primary.

Little Rock and other urban areas were supposed to belong to her rival, Lt. Gov Bill Halter, who was enthusiastically supported by labor unions and national liberal groups. Rural counties, with more conservative voters, were supposed to go to Mrs. Lincoln, a moderate who is the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. If Mrs. Lincoln had prevailed in her adversary’s territory, the thinking went, she must have prevailed everywhere.

But the final vote count upended all that careful reasoning…

Mrs. Lincoln won in urban areas like Little Rock and Fayetteville. While some analysts predicted that she was in trouble with black voters, she won in seven of nine Arkansas counties that are more than 40 percent black, perhaps aided by radio advertisements by Mr. Obama that were in heavy rotation on black-oriented stations.

But she lost 20 of 26 largely white, rural counties that stretch diagonally across the state. Those counties, which went strongly for John McCain in 2008, are considered decisive swing counties, Ms. Parry said.

(Ms. Parry would be Janine Parry, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, who tells the Times that she is “still trying to figure out what happened.”)

While the unexpected vote breakdown didn’t make it into some of the initial national accounts, several Arkansas journalists picked up on it immediately. One of them, John Brummett of the Arkansas News Bureau, has a column today outlining his take: Halter assembled an unlikely coalition of “liberal money and conservative votes.” Some Halter voters, Brummett writes, were anti-Lincoln, but not for the same reasons MoveOn.org and the SEIU are anti-Lincoln:

The e-mail reported that two old boys dressed in hunting attire were on the steps of the Grant County Courthouse boasting about how they’d never voted before in a Democratic primary, but had gone that way this time, by George, and for Bill Halter, to get rid of that blankety-blank Blanche Lincoln.

Hours later, we had empirical confirmation that Halter, with the money and passion of MoveOn.org and unions and bicoastal liberal groups, had won this Grant County, just as he had won Garland County, Columbia County, Miller County, Little River County and other good ol’ boy nests across what we like to lovingly call LA, for Lower Arkansas…

White rural conservatives and good ol’ boys aren’t much enamored of Halter now and certainly won’t be enamored of him by November after the Republicans pour several millions into the state to explain who and what he is — meaning a labor guy a tad left of this very Blanche Lincoln whom the good ol’ boys targeted Tuesday.

But Halter, and the dude D.C. Morrison [ed.—who, the Times notes, described President Obama as a “socialist” and pulled in 13 percent of the primary vote on a $40,000 campaign budget] were mere agents to be used to express a mildly irrational anger at Lincoln.

So does all this mean that the “rise of the activists” narrative is off-base in Arkansas but the “anti-incumbent fervor” narrative applies? Well, maybe; for some voters, Lincoln does seem to have worn out her welcome. But it would be just as plausible to argue that a GOP-friendly environment in Arkansas—unsurprising, given long-run trends in the South and the historical record of the president’s party losing ground in the midterms—is at least as big a part of what’s going on here. Whoever wins the Democratic run-off, after all, will be a heavy underdog to the very establishment Republican in the general election. (As for the limits of the “anti-incumbent” storyline more generally, consider this point from James Joyner: “most incumbents who run this year will get re-elected. The difference between an ‘anti-incumbent wave’ and a normal cycle is a re-election rate of 85% rather than 95%.”)

More broadly, though, the point is not so much that the press should be slotting this week’s elections into the “right” narrative as that we should be very wary of slotting them into any national narrative. The increasing influence of activists and the current anger at Washington are real, but they interact with other factors—trends in partisanship, the constellation of candidates in a given race, the arbitrary rules governing local primaries, etc., etc.—in ways that are variable and unpredictable, and that may not add up to anything like a coherent message, especially in the handful of races that happen to be held on one given day of the year.

Figuring out what it all “means” takes time, hard work, and knowledge of different contexts, and sometimes is simply beyond our capacity. Good reporting about the votes is reporting that attempts to tell readers, in as much detail as possible, what happened and why it’s interesting—and is honest about the limits of our ability, at the moment, to do much more than that.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.