Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Autopsy on the Jay Batt Campaign

If you’re a regular reader of this column or was one of those checking out “The Early Call” on Saturday night, you are already aware of the record-breaking time I projected ex-Councilman Jay Batt’s defeat in his bid to get back in city government.

Originally, I had posted three other precinct checkers across District A, in the riverbend, uptown, midcity and lakeview areas to call in results though I ended up calling them up and telling them not to bother 15 minutes after the election end.

The first set of numbers I saw in one precinct in Lakeview, the most Republican area in New Orleans, told me the whole story. Though Batt had won the box, he had done so by about 16 votes. He fared just as well (or rather poorly) at a neighboring station.

While en route to the next cluster of precincts, where poll workers provide transparency in elections by posting the numbers outside the door of the voting location, I called up Batt supporters that things weren’t looking well.

As I approached the door of the largest concentration of voting boxes in Lakeview with a pen and notepad in my hand, my eyes scanned the numbers, though I didn’t bother writing any of them down.

Batt had broken even.

I put my pen in my pants pocket and retrieved my cell phone from my other and told my fellow number crunchers to head back. The election was over even though Batt led most of the precincts I had checked.

Batt had carried precincts with a bare majority that virtually any Republican would win by 2 or 3-1 margins.

Here’s an example:

Precinct 4-17A, a box that went to John McCain, who had some of the worst numbers for a GOP presidential candidate in Orleans Parish in decades, handily carried it with 79%.

Batt lost that box by 5 votes…and it was hardly the exception as many other GOP precincts either gave Batt a slight majority or a loss. As you can imagine, Batt didn’t do well at all in Democratic precincts.

So how can one nitpick what a candidate did wrong when he got beat by a 62%-38% margin?

After all, it might be easier to find out what he did right.

That said, here’s an outsider’s view on how a well-financed Republican candidate got thrashed in a council district that has historically elected Republicans, at least until 2006.

1) Failure to consolidate the Republican vote. The first symptom of defeat was Batt’s lukewarm showings in Republican neighborhoods. Though the district is not a solid GOP district (it voted heavily for Barack Obama in 2008), the turnout dynamic favored a Republican, especially after Claude Mauberret dropped out of the assessor’s race, putting more pressure on Susan Guidry’s campaign to fire-up the Democratic base on her own. Though he made the effort, Batt failed to effectively play the Republican card with GOP voters despite his solid cred in this area, having played a major role in Joseph Cao’s defeat of Democratic Congressman Bill Jefferson and being the lone councilman who actively opposed Kathleen Blanco’s bid for governor in 2003.

2) Running on endorsements vs. testimonials. Batt received several high-profile endorsements from popular political figures Sheriff Marlin Gusman, Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, etc.) yet they had little effect on his candidacy. The mailers I saw simply contained file photos of the endorser with a forgettable effusive quote on why Batt was great. Batt relied heavily on endorsements in his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2006, going so far as putting the Alliance for Good Government, the Times-Picayune and Bobby Jindal’s endorsements on his yard signs. Yet the same strategy that didn’t work last election should not have expected to do much this time. Rather than simply using endorsements and names, Batt should have used testimonials laying out what Batt had done specifically as a councilman while working with his endorsers in government. Furthermore, endorsements have little impact in big races or local races of interest; high-profile endorsements matter most in low-profile contests that are sandwiched in between more interesting elections.

3) Neutralizing “Anybody But Batt” First. The candidate had to know they weren’t going away and he should have launched his campaign actively engaging their charges and refuting them. Instead, the anti-Batt brigade defined his candidacy peppering him with criticism throughout the campaign with the least threatening aspect of their effort being their ABB signs in Mardi Gras colors.

On another note, I was surprised that the City of New Orleans would pick up the signs on election day, since technically candidate signs aren’t supposed to be on neutral grounds and right-of-ways at anytime. I don’t see how the city can pick and choose what signs get picked up and what signs are allowed to stay up.

4) The De Facto Incumbent in Denial Though he no longer held office, Batt was being judged by the voters as an incumbent official from his time on the council. While there were zoning votes that stirred his determined third-party opposition from his last campaign, Batt did not put his tenure in office in perspective. The issue I felt should have defined Batt’s candidacy was the former “residency rule” that used to be in effect that ostensibly was aimed at keeping city employees residing in Orleans Parish but in practice was used to chase away experienced people from the police department. That rule was symbolic of how political games and corruption have contributed to a decline in the quality of life in New Orleans and Batt had more to do with its repeal after Hurricane Katrina than any other councilman.

5) The Failure to Anticipate Why the Batt campaign didn’t see the return of “Dancing Jay” and plan on countering it is lost on me. How they didn’t see Batt’s backing from the city’s sundry political organizations being thrown back in his face with white voters equally so.

6) Wasted Money. Someone really need to tell me the benefit of those WBOK radio spots or LIFE, IDEA or YAPA ballots going to voters who aren’t inclined to vote for a Republican. Or why a candidate with 100% name recognition needed to spend dough on high-priced billboards.

I make no apologies for personally supporting Batt, though I wish he could have done a better job selling his candidacy to the voters. There have been a lot of bad people who have served in public office in Orleans Parish over the years that did more harm than good to the city, though Batt was not one of those individuals.

Batt was the kind of councilman who could vote for reform-oriented policies without crying while justifying his vote to race-baiters who didn’t think anything was wrong with the city on August 28, 2005.

The Batt campaign is proof that while having a large warchest is helpful, money cannot always buy love or the affections of the electorate and even if you have campaign finances to spare, they should always be spent wisely for maximum effect.

Batt had the misfortune of running afoul people who were willing to back up their grievances with him with time, resources and almost fanatical dedication to the cause of keeping him out off the council. And they showed they could carry a grudge over a long period of time.

1 comment:

Edward said...

Good stuff and good analysis, but let me suggest two more aspects of Batt's poor showing in Lakeview. Those folks have NEVER forgiven him for the storm. Within days of the storm, there was a "neighborhood meeting" by I-10 and Pontchartrain Expressway (one of the few high areas), and Batt was almost physically attacked. His response? Get on a plane for DC and lobby for Entergy. People rebuilding houses have long memories.

The second aspect of low Batt turnout in Lakeview is fewer voters in Lakeview in general. While there's more folks living in the area now than in 2006, the numbers still aren't where they were in 2002, when Batt actually won those precincts.