Why Kamala Harris won in California

With 62% of the vote, Kamala Harris won a decisive victory in the race for the Senate seat in California. As the front runner for the entire campaign as well as the California primary, this result was not a surprise. Her backing by national democratic leaders, including President Obama, along with her clear fundraising advantage, meant that Sanchez never really stood a chance.

This was the first run of California’s new top-two primary system, in which only the top two vote recipients from the primary, regardless of party affiliation, are on the ballot in the general election. With two Democrats running against each other, Sanchez would have needed to pull support from Republicans, Independents, and moderate Democrats, something she seemingly failed to do. According to exit polls, Sanchez lost every age group and failed to whip up enthusiasm among California Republicans. In fact, of voters surveyed, “35% of Republicans and 15% of independents said they did not vote in the U.S. Senate race.” This shortcoming demonstrates a potential problem for the top-two primary system, if the lack of a candidate from one of the major parties leads to a significant drop in participation.

Harris’ success among virtually every demographic is hard to explain with just one argument, not because potential causes are lacking, but rather because she has been advantaged in every conventional measure of campaign success. She received significantly more media coverage than Sanchez throughout the campaign, has been backed by the Democratic party establishment, as well as interest groups, and is ideologically more extreme than Sanchez, which would overall seem to translate into higher levels of mobilization and general voter support. This means that a wide range of factors, rather than just one could explain her success. In reality, these factors probably worked together to form a successful campaign.

Another interesting fact about the outcome of this election is the comparisons already being drawn between Kamala Harris and President Obama. Some news outlets are already mentioning Harris in their guesses for who might become the first woman president, following Clinton’s defeat. Ultimately, the campaign for California’s senate seat is comforting, especially this election cycle, because it turned out exactly as expected, and as would be indicated by the traditional campaign factors. However, this campaign suffered in attention level and fundraising due to its structure, as everyone knew since the June primary, that the seat was guaranteed to stay Democratic.


Why Duckworth soundly defeated Kirk in the Illinois Senate Race

After an expensive and brutal campaign fight between Representative Tammy Duckworth and Senator Mark Kirk, Duckworth won the election by an astounding 14.2 points. This landslide victory for Duckworth is surprising given that “incumbents possess substantial advantages over challengers,” but there are factors before and during the campaign season that contributed to Mark Kirk’s monumental defeat (Herrnson, 266). Kirk’s loss of endorsements from a scandal, the media coverage around the event, and the overall mood among Illinois voters including the coattail effect all led to Tammy Duckworth being chosen to be Illinois’ new junior senator.

One of the most surprising, and possibly scandalous moments during the campaign, was when Kirk “questioned [Duckworth’s family] ties to the American Revolution during a Senate debate” which brought about accusations of him being “‘offensive, wrong, and racist’”. It is important to note that even before this scandal, Kirk had increasingly been receiving poor polling numbers, and an accusation like this, on live television during a debate with Duckworth, hurt his chances of reelection. As Herrnson notes, scandals can be “important in determining an incumbent’s vote share,” and it is certain that this event adversely eroded his support (253). While the scandal was hurtful enough to Kirk’s campaign, the resulting loss of vital endorsements solidified his almost certain destiny to failure. Endorsements are essential to any campaign, and the revocation of support from the Human Rights Campaign and Americans for Responsible Solutions, who then declared they back Duckworth, significantly damaged the incumbent’s campaign (Crowder-Meyer, November 14, 2016).

In addition, the media’s extensive coverage of Kirk’s scandal undermined his reelection bid. First of all, campaign debates are dangerous for incumbents since they “can place a challenger on equal footing with an incumbent,” and this exactly happened during the second debate in which Kirk made a racist remark about his opponent (Herrnson, 241). Following the comments, many media outlets, such as CNN, NPR, and PBS, flocked to cover the event more than they had covered the rest of the campaign. By extensively reporting this topic, the media was agenda-setting and making “the public…view that issue as important” and perhaps even priming this event “to take on greater weight in political judgment, such as voting” (Hayes, 57). Such a discussed statement could have persuaded voters to use this one event, rather than Kirk’s policy views, when voting. Mediated communication is “more trustworthy than direct communication,” so perhaps media users placed greater weight on this information than that from direct communication (Crowder-Meyer, October 21, 2016). Nevertheless, it is clear that the media coverage surrounding the scandal significantly hurt Kirk’s campaign.

Another vital factor contributing to Kirk’s astonishing defeat could have been the coattail effect and the negative mood among Illinois voters. Kirk was elected in 2010 during a political “wave election” that in many ways was a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic Party (Crowder-Meyer, September 23, 2016). Herrnson notes “nationalized elections result in…an unusually large number of challengers getting elected,” and Kirk surprisingly defeated an incumbent Democrat in a traditionally solid Democratic state in 2010 (28). Given that Illinois is a blue state, it would make sense for Kirk to struggle to maintain his seat in 2016. In addition, Hillary Clinton’s significant polling advantage within Illinois and the United States could have also contributed to the coattail effect which might have led voters to vote for Duckworth given that “coattails contribute more to congressional election results in presidential years than does anticipatory balancing.” (Erikson, 570). In addition, the general electorate attitude, especially the direction of Illinois and that of Kirk, was incredibly negative with only 14% thinking Illinois was headed in the right direction and a mere 35% of Illinoisans approving Kirk’s work in Congress. It is very likely coattails and this voter sentiment greatly reduced Kirk’s chances of reelection given “the political setting in a given election year has an impact on incumbents’ prospects for reelection.” (Herrnson, 34).

From devastating scandals to excessive media coverage to coattails and negative voter sentiment, Kirk faced an increasingly difficult task of maintaining his senate seat which is normally an easy undertaking for an incumbent given their traditional advantages (Herrnson, 266). Had these factors not been present in this election, than perhaps, like many of his fellow Republican incumbents in the Senate, Mark Kirk would have won.


Open Topic: Supreme Court

This was an interesting presidential election to say the least. There are also many issues that will need to be addressed in the near-future, considering we now have a Republican controlled congress, senate, and presidency. A major issue, and one that particularly interests me, is the implications that Trump’s win will have on the Supreme Court. I found an article on The New York Time’s website that was very informative on the current and future climate of the Court. Here is a link to the article.

The beginning of this article gives two major points in consideration of the current Supreme Court. First, Justice Scalia’s vacant court seat will most likely be filled by a traditional conservative now that Trump was elected. Second, the two more liberal members of the court, Justice Ginsburg and Breyer, are fairly old meaning that Trump could possibly appoint two more members to the Court. Obviously, this would give the Supreme court a 7-2 conservative majority. As shown in the article, one conservative appointee would not have made much of a difference in recent cases such as the University of Texas’s race-conscious admissions program (4-3 vote to uphold) or the eventual striking down of restrictions on abortion also in Texas (5-3 vote to strike down). It is evident that two or even three Trump- appointed justice’s most likely would have changed these rulings. It will be interesting to see what direction the Supreme Court will head and what the repercussions will be for The United States.

A Lesson for the Democratic Party

After reflecting on the shocking outcome of the elections this past week, I was curious as to what the Democratic Party will do to make itself grow and perhaps retake control in the 2018 congressional elections and beyond. One opinion article, from The New York Times, explained the Democratic Party’s surprising loss in this election, and I wanted to bring it to this blog’s attention.

Frank Bruni, the author, first mentions how the Democratic Party had “adopted a strategy of inclusiveness that excluded a hefty share of Americans and consigned many to a ‘basket of deplorables’ who aren’t all deplorable.” The author recognizes that there are many Trump supporters who fit this description, but he states that “some [of these individuals] are hurt. Some are confused.” The idea of the decline of the white working class has been a relatively common theme in this election, but it seems as though the Democratic Party failed to cater to these voters. This group has been ignored in the past, and it seems the media has a constant fixation with a candidate’s need to win the minority vote rather than the working class white American vote.

The Democratic Party now has the opportunity to grow and embrace this ignored section of the electorate. Yes, there are racists, homophobes, and xenophobes among this group. However, reaching out to non-racist white working class Americans, those who are, as Frank Bruni says, “hurt” and “confused,” will help strengthen the party and perhaps make way for a takeover of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond as Bruni highlights in this article.


Campaign Photos

In his article for the NYT, Leonard Mlodinow examines how a candidate’s appearance affects their perceived level of competence as well as their vote share in experimental as well as observational studies. It turns out looking competent is a complicated thing. The features mentioned as relevant for the evaluation of “able” looking women includes having “eyes with more curvature on the top than the bottom; hair that is short and parted on the side or combed back; a hairline that comes to a slight widow’s peak; a broad or round face; and a smile.” While the article did not include similar parameters for men running for office, I’m fairly sure they exist.


Now, I’m sure everyone has seen this picture at some point during the campaign. For one thing, it was plastered all over campus leading up to the presidential debates. But try to look at this image through the lens of Mlodinow’s summary of how a candidate might influence voter perception of competence. While I’m not sure how these pictures were chosen for the matchup, clear campaign messages can be derived from them. For one, it seems Clinton’s campaign got the memo (or maybe they wrote the book on female competence?). For another, the candidates’ demeanor, even in this still image, seems to align with their respective approaches to campaigning. Is it just me, or is Trump looking far more aggressive than Clinton? Of course, it is entirely possible that I am projecting the knowledge I have of how the campaign unfolded unto two simple headshots.

Ads and voter targeting

Ad use between Senator McCain and Representative Kirkpatrick has been very beneficial because clear stances on substantive issues have been given and obvious targeting of one specific voter group is shown. There are five major methods to broadcast ads to a wide variety of audiences, and these five methods consist of broadcast TV, cable, radio advertising, online advertising, and newspaper advertising. (Crowder-Meyer, November 2, 2016). Broadcast TV and radio ads seem to be the most prevalent in the race between Senator McCain and Representative Kirkpatrick. After visiting multiple sites, it seems Representative Kirkpatrick has not taken advantage of radio advertising however, the incumbent Senator McCain has. This could prove as an advantageous move Senator McCain because radio ads are heard by about 80 percent of the public. (Overby & Barth. 2006. “Radio Advertising in American Political Campaigns: The Persistence, Importance, and Effects of Narrowcasting” American Politics Research.).

Senator McCain has aired twice as many TV ads as his competitor, Representative Kirkpatrick. Here, a compiled list of ads aired by both candidates is shown. After categorizing the TV ads, McCain has produced two attack ads, seven issue based ads, and one particularly important ad title “Por Arizona”. Senator McCain’s issue based ads focus largely on national and state security for Arizona, the effects of Obamacare, and Economic security also on the national and state level. A couple of the ads were sponsored by others such as “Fighter” which was sponsored by the U.S chamber of Commerce or the ad showing Border Patrol endorsing Senator McCain. Aside from Senator McCain’s two attack ads, which attacked Representative Kirkpatrick’s stance on Obamacare, the issue based ads seemed to stern but optimistic for the future. Senator McCain just released a radio attack ad focusing on Representative Kirkpatrick’s stance on Obamacare as well. There is significant mentioning of leadership in association to the issues Senator McCain brings up in these ads, and ads titled “Protect” or “Fighter” depict Senator McCain as a candidate that will fight for the well-being of Arizona. Patriotism and McCain’s military association was shown by background images in almost every ad as well.

Representative Kirkpatrick is lacking in TV and radio ads aired. This might have stemmed from falling behind in funding to Senator McCain as well. Representative has only aired 5 ads, all of which were TV ads. These can be viewed here. Two of the three attack ads strategically played on the negative relationship between Trump and Senator McCain. Representative Kirkpatrick’s issue based ads leave her looking more moderate than strictly democratic. In these ads, she proposed term limits in Congress and moderate stances on medicare and privatizing social security. “Campaigns by challengers are the most likely to target voters who identify with the opposing party.” (Herrnson, pg. 213).This could be an attempt to target moderate republican voters to help swing the election.

Interestingly, both candidates aired an ad completely in Spanish. Senator McCain aired an ad titled “Por Arizona” and Representative Kirkpatrick aired more of an attack ad in Spanish titled “Pensabamos que Sabiamos”. Both candidates are clearly targeting the Hispanic voter constituency. Depending on which poll is used, the race for Arizona’s senate seat is close or no competition. If there is a high turnout among latino voters, the effect could very well swing the election in favor of either candidate.

Media Coverage in California

Looking at the race for California’s Senate seat is interesting because the context of our readings this week (especially Falk) highlighted the differences in coverage based on gender. However, it’s hard to tell how these effects would manifest themselves when two women are running against each other, as is currently the case in California. That being said, there are other differences in coverage based on different factors, primarily Kamala Harris’ status as decisive frontrunner.

A search on Lexis Nexis reveals that Kamala Harris has received far more coverage in the last month, with 300 articles versus 185 for her opponent, Loretta Sanchez. Harris also seems to be mentioned more frequently in headlines. This is consistent with Falk’s findings that candidates that are seen as more viable receive more coverage.

Considering the two candidates in this race are both from the same party, it is not really surprising that they agree on the vast majority of issue that are currently being primed by the media. Their debate touched on Supreme court nominees, improving the Affordable Care Act, and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, all issues on which the candidates agree. The focus of the campaign, both from the perspective of the candidates and on the part of the local media, has therefore shifted to the candidates’ differences in personality and experience. The most obvious example of this shift is when Loretta Sanchez ended the “dab.” This move was not only a departure from Harris’ very measured and professional approach to the debate, it also sparked a conversation about how different the approaches of the respective candidates are.

Sanchez has been branding herself as anti-establishment, while she has been painting Harris as just another political insider. This approach is particularly interesting considering that Sanchez is the one who has spent the last decade in Washington as a congresswoman.

Ultimately, this Senate race is fairly weak on issue coverage. The agenda is being set to make voters think about personality rather than policy differences. However, it is impossible to say how much of this tendency comes from the fact that there are few substantial policy differences between the two candidates versus the effects of having two women running against each other.