Analysis of Jacqueline Smith’s Stunning Upset

Democrat Jacqueline Smith scored a stunning upset Tuesday in the special election for the Clerk of the Court for Prince William County, Manassas City, and Manassas Park. Smith bested Delegate Jackson Miller, the powerful Republican Majority Whip in the Virginia House of Delegates, by more than 2,000 votes, winning by nearly 8%.

What made Smith’s upset particularly remarkable was that in low turnout, 2-person elections, Republicans overwhelmingly dominate 5 of Prince William County’s 7 magisterial districts (the exceptions being Woodbridge and Neabsco). They are thus heavily favored in any county-wide election for a county office. This has long been the most significant factor in Republican control of local offices on the Board of County Supervisors and the School Board. Although Prince William BOCS Chair Corey Stewart likes to contrast his electoral success against that of Republican statewide and presidential candidates in the county and claim it is a sign of his particular appeal to the electorate, every knowledgeable political observer knows that his success is mostly attributable to the fact that he has always run in the lowest-turnout elections in the electoral cycle, where Republicans typically have an overwhelming turnout advantage. If county elections were held in high-turnout presidential or gubernatorial years, Stewart, and several other Republicans on the BOCS, would likely lose to a random Democratic opponent. (In the low-turnout 2015 election Democrats successfully took control of the County School Board thanks in large measure to disarray in the local Republican Party, which resulted in multiple de facto Republicans splitting the Republican vote in the general election. Absent that, Republicans would almost assuredly still control the School Board. In the low-turnout, county-wide elections for Commonwealth Attorney, Republicans lose thanks almost certainly to the very long, moderate tenure of Democrat Paul Ebert.)

In addition to the large built-in advantage Miller possessed in Prince William County, Miller also previously served on the Council in the City of Manassas, which is thus a stronghold for him, while the more liberal Manassas Park generates relatively few votes (approximately 500, of which Miller received 218).

This means that by most predictive measures Miller would have been expected to win by a substantial margin, which was, in fact, a common prediction among a number of Republican regulars as late as last weekend. The outcome is even more unusual when one recognizes that the two Democratic districts in the county, Woodbridge and Neabsco, both dramatically underperformed in terms of vote totals. While every other magisterial district in the County generated approximately 3,000 votes, both Woodbridge and Neabsco both fell short of 2,000 votes, with Woodbridge falling below 1,500! Additionally, it was no secret that Republicans specifically scheduled this special election to occur quickly in order to minimize turnout (which would be higher during a general election) and maximize Miller’s substantial fundraising advantage as a senior Republican in the Virginia General Assembly.

So, how do we explain Smith’s upset victory? Certainty is a myth in such analyses, but below we analyze of number of potential factors and speculate about their potential impact.

1. Candidate Messaging

In low-turnout elections candidate messaging typically plays virtually no role absent robust press coverage or some major single issue gripping the community. Instead, partisanship and get-out-the-vote efforts are generally the most important factors. Nevertheless, out of respect for the efforts of the candidates, a brief review of their messaging attempts seems warranted.

Jackson Miller’s campaign stressed his relevant experience as a police officer, realtor, and member of the Virginia House of Delegates, noting that each gave him experience with the court system. In the House of Delegates his committee assignments while he rose to Majority Whip included committees important to court functioning and the appointment of judges. It was by any measure an impressive resume.

Jacqueline Smith is an attorney who ran for the Clerk’s position in 2015 and who could thus also claim familiarity with the court system. Yet, her record of relevant experience was arguably not as extensive as Miller’s. In her campaign she stressed her desire to take politics out of the Clerk’s office. With this approach she attempted to capitalize on the belief of some that her predecessor, the late Michele McQuigg, had deeply politicized the Clerk’s office. This was a view held by a not insignificant number of Republicans, who fielded a primary challenger to McQuigg in 2015.

Concerns about politicization of the Clerk’s office stemmed from two primary incidents. The first was McQuigg’s appointment of far-right, Republican culture warrior, Bob Fitzsimmonds, as a Deputy. It was Fitzsimmonds who caused a furor when on Facebook he openly mocked President Obama’s applauding of Muslim contributions to American society. Later, McQuigg filed a suit, funded by an outside far-right advocacy group, challenging Virginia’s recognition of same-sex marriage. Both incidents proved to be an embarrassment to Prince William County throughout the region, led to claims that McQuigg was controlled by extremists who were holding her hostage to a challenge from the far-right, and prompted some moderate Republicans to mount an unsuccessful bid against her in 2015.

Smith argued in her campaign that Miller would continue the politicization of the office, noting that his position as majority whip was almost by definition a fundamentally partisan one, and that he had also played a major role in legislation designed to roll back voting and other civil rights gains.

Miller and Smith both emphasized modernizing the Clerk’s office and improving customer service.

While candidates always like to hope that messaging makes a difference, it is unlikely it played a significant role in this special election. Again, with low-turnout, no daily press coverage or television advertising, even many hyper-partisan voters were likely unaware of either candidate’s experience or policy positions.

Potential Significance: Low

2. Grass Roots Activity, Donald Trump, and Corey Stewart

There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that significant distaste among certain segments of the voting population for President Donald Trump and current county chair and gubernatorial candidate, Corey Stewart, may have worked to Smith’s advantage in the special election. Opposition to both Trump and Stewart have generated a level of enthusiasm among what appear to be previously-uninvolved democratic constituencies that has in turn led to the formation of a wide variety of ad-hoc liberal groups of varying levels of knowledge and sophistication. They often operate outside local party structures, sometimes at cross-purposes with each other, and occasionally without an adequate understanding of election rules (one such group in the western part of the county, for example, on a day prior to the election, mistakenly distributed inappropriate sample ballots, which led to cries of voter-fraud from local and state Republican officials). It is possible, however, that in a low-turnout election these ad-hoc groups, if they effectively encouraged people who do not normally vote in a low-turnout election, to do so, may have played a significant role in Smith’s victory.

Not too long from now it may be possible to more accurately assess whether or not this was the case. At that time the State Board of Elections will make available the information about who voted in the special election, which the major political parties will then incorporate into their voter databases. This will in turn enable the parties to determine how effective candidates were in bringing out people who do not normally vote in low-turnout (e.g. non-Presidential, non-gubernatorial, non-Congressional) elections. If that number is significant it may represent a sign of strength in the grassroots opposition to Trump and/or Stewart and could have implications for upcoming state delegate races.

Potential Significance: High

3. Democratic Candidates for the House of Delegates

This may have been the most important element in Smith’s win. Local Democrats have 12 candidates campaigning to challenge sitting Republican members of the House of Delegates in Prince William County. In the 2nd District, Josh King and Jennifer Foy are competing for the seat being vacated by Republican Mark Dudenhefer. In the 13th District, Mansimran Kahlon, Danica Roem, Steve Jansen, and Andrew Adams are competing to unseat Republican Bob Marshall. In the 31st District, Elizabeth Guzman and Sara Townsend face each other for the right to challenge Republican Scott Lingamfelter. In the 51st District, Ken Boddye and Hala Ayala look to unseat Republican Rich Anderson. Finally, Lee Carter and Donte Tanner, hope to unseat Republican incumbents in the 50th and 40th House Districts, respectively (with the 50th being the seat currently held by Jackson Miller).

Most of these candidates have been out fundraising, calling, and door-knocking for weeks, both to introduce themselves to voters for the upcoming primary or general elections, and also to demonstrate their support for the party and Jacqueline Smith. No comparable level of activity appears to be occurring on the Republican side of the aisle. Consequently, the efforts of these candidates may be the single most important element in Smith’s victory.

Again, we may obtain some objective measure of this when voting records become available. Primary candidates typically focus on contacting reliable, active Democratic voters in order to first win their primary contest. If voting data shows these consistently active voters – as opposed to voters who typically do not vote in low-turnout elections – turned out in larger numbers than consistently active Republican voters, it may be a significant indicator that the efforts of Democratic delegate candidates had a major impact.

Potential Significance: High

4. Ballot Placement and Name Identification

We hate to even bring this up because it makes lovers like us of responsible democracy and representative government cringe, but numerous studies support the notion that being listed first on a ballot gets a candidate anywhere from a handful to 5% more votes simply attributable to name placement. The advantage is lowest with high-turnout, high-visibility, high-voter information races like President, and highest with lower-visibility, low-voter information races, particularly when there are a large number of races on the ballot. The Clerk’s race was the latter, but the ballot contained only one race and voters had to be reasonably well informed to even know a race was taking place. So, presumably ballot placement had little impact here, though even if it did Smith secured victory by a margin larger than the typical outside range of impact of 5%.

There are also studies supporting the notion that traditional, dare we say, Anglo-Saxon, names tend to advantage candidates depending on the voting demographics of the district. But “Smith” and “Miller”? How about we all just agree to call that a tie?

Potential Significance: Low

5. Spending, Campaign Efficiency, and Party Efforts

In public, online pronouncements, Democratic officeholders and party officials are crowing about Jackson Miller outspending Jacqueline Smith 7 to 1, with Miller allegedly devoting well over $200,000 to the race, much of it from his delegate account (the Muckraker has not independently confirmed any of the spending information).

This is an astounding financial advantage and should easily be determinative in a low turnout race with one office on the ballot, where money buys field workers and phone bankers whose sole objective is to make sure reliable, active Republican voters are repeatedly contacted the week before Election Day and urged to the polls.

This is the most baffling aspect of this particular race’s outcome. As a delegate, Miller is generally regarded as a straightforward conservative who is generally civil and honest about his positions, whether or not you agree with those positions. He exhibits neither the blatant hypocrisy of Delegate Rich Anderson, nor the honest, but far-right conservatism of Scott Lingamfelter or Bob Marshall. He’s not a moderate policy and constituent service exemplar in the mold of Marty Nohe or Maureen Caddigan, and thus is not a sometime villain to the right-wing of his party. Nor for a long time has he engaged in the histrionics that critics attribute to Corey Stewart, and raise the ire of moderate Republicans. In other words, it is mystifying why consistent, reliable Republican voters would not turn out for Jackson Miller if they were repeatedly contacted by his campaign.

A look at the approximate vote totals in the county magisterial districts is intriguing.

As we mentioned in passing earlier, although Smith won the reliably Democratic districts of Woodbridge (represented on the BOCS by Democrat Frank Principi) and Neabsco (represented on the BOCS by Democrat John Jenkins) by 2 to 1 margins, the total votes cast in each district were quite low, at 1,448 and 1,839, respectively, with Smith gaining advantages there of 500-600 votes in each, with Miller’s advantage in Manassas City of approximately 500 votes negating the advantage of one of these.

Vote totals were highest in Coles (represented on the BOCS by Republican Marty Nohe) and Occoquan (represented on the BOCS by Republican Ruth Anderson), where they were in excess of 3,900 and 3,500 respectively. Miller, however, won the higher-turnout Coles district by only 31 votes and was beaten in the Occoquan District by more than 350 votes.

The Potomac District is one that is increasingly becoming more Democratic, with Republicans still holding its seat on the BOCS largely because of the personal popularity, long-time constituent service record, and moderate views of Maureen Caddigan. A sign of this change was the 2015 School Board seat victory of the diligent campaigner, Democrat Justin Wilk. Potomac’s turnout was relatively low for the Clerk’s race, at approximately 2,800, but in a sign perhaps of the changing views of the district, gave Smith a strong–approximately 800 vote–advantage.

The biggest surprises of all, perhaps, came in the hard-core conservative magisterial districts of Brentsville and Gainesville, represented on the BOCS by Republican Jeanine Lawson and Republican Pete Candland, respectively. Brentsville, the most conservative district in the county cast approximately 3,000 votes, but Miller won by only about 300. Gainesville, the second most conservative district in the county cast more than 3,200 votes, but Miller won there by only 80 votes, not much higher than the 61 vote margin favoring Smith in Manassas Park!

Smith won the absentee ballots by 450 votes, while more than 2,000 were cast. Even if all of these absentee votes were allocated to the heavily Democratic districts of Woodbridge and Neabsco, these two districts would still lag the vote totals of the other districts. (It’s worth noting that if the absentee ballots were skewed heavily to any other single district it could materially affect this analysis with regard to that district.)

From a purely numerical perspective Smith bested Miller with a wide margin of victory in the changing Potomac District and with Miller underperforming in the reliably Republican Brentsville, Gainesville, Coles, and Occoquan districts. How does this happen with a 7-1 monetary advantage?

This is a question Miller would be very justified in putting to his campaign consultants and mail firm. A vigorous GOTV effort the week before the election — for which he certainly had sufficient resources — should have generated sufficient turnout in Brentsville, Gainesville, Coles, and Occoquan for Miller to win. We’ve also learned that numerous hard-core Democrats received multiple mailers from the Miller campaign. By hard core in this case we mean elected and party officials. Of course this makes no sense, given the relative ease of targeting mailers to likely supporters in a low-turnout, special election. If widespread, as anecdotal evidence thus far seems to suggest, this would indicate that Miller’s monetary advantage was perhaps offset by inefficient campaign operations relative to those of Jacqueline Smith. Mail firms, for example, make more money the more mailers they send out. If numerous voters identified as strong, active Democrats in voter databases received multiple mailers from Miller, it would suggest that his consultants and/or mail firm may have partly squandered his financial advantage by failing to adequately target Republicans in heavily Republican areas and perhaps simply mailing more broadly for their own financial benefit. It seems likely that Miller was poorly-served by his campaign vendors.

Potential Significance: Medium

Whatever may have occurred with the Miller campaign, it does not take away from the clearly effective strategy employed by Jacqueline Smith, her supporters, and the Prince William Democratic Committee. Smith essentially accomplished what is incredibly difficult for a Democrat in a 2-person, low-turnout, county-wide race. She kept the loss margins way down in heavily-conservative districts, held the two heavily-Democratic Districts with reasonable margins, and stole two traditionally Republican districts. It was, as we said at the start, a stunning upset.


2 comments on “Analysis of Jacqueline Smith’s Stunning Upset

  1. -

    This is a wake up call for both sides. Some Republicans in the west were angry at Miller’s votes for legislation that the power utilities wanted. For Democrats the lesson is that it takes a good ground game to flip a seat.

  2. -

    Some women in the county were mad that Jackson has continued to vote for issues that definitely don’t support women.

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