Monday, February 25, 2013

What You Need to Know Before the #IL02 Special Election

Even in regular election years, individual House races rarely get much attention—so you know you're getting down into the depths of obscurity when you're dealing with a special House election. On February 26, the voters of the new Illinois Second Congressional District will choose their next US representative, succeeding Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned due to mental illness and a now-exploding ethics investigation. True, February 26 is just a primary, but in this heavily Democratic district (a Cook PVI of D+27), the winner of Tuesday's Democratic primary is guaranteed a coronation on the general-election date of April 9.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, there are no less than 15 Democrats running for this seat that hasn't been open since 1995. That's daunting for election watchers like us who want to know what's going on and who's likely to win. Thankfully, Baseballot is here to grant you a crash course before you tune in on Tuesday.

I know the Illinois Second about as well as you can without being a local; my mother grew up there, and I visited family there frequently while growing up. The first thing to know is that it's an extremely diverse district, both geographically and demographically. IL-02's northern border sits on East 53rd St. in urban Chicago—Hyde Park, to be precise, President's Obama's home neighborhood (although he just narrowly avoids being in the district and the awkward questioning that would surely come with it). A small, well-to-do neighborhood for professors at the nearby University of Chicago, mostly white Hyde Park quickly gives way to the poor, almost completely African-American South Side. Despite physically taking up only the northern tip of the district, the South Side constitutes a hefty chunk of its vote share; Chicago accounted for 26% of the total votes cast for Congress in this district in 2012 (76,506 out of 297,712 total).

As you drive south on I-94 past Lake Calumet, you cross the Chicago city limits into the core suburbs of the Illinois Second. Cities like Calumet City, Dolton, Harvey, and South Holland are also majority African-American, though unlike the virtually homogenous South Side, they retain some of the white voters who were their traditional residents a generation or two ago. Currently, the dividing line is I-80/I-294, which crosses I-94 about 15 miles south of where we began in Hyde Park. The change is evident immediately to a southbound driver: suburban commerce, strip malls, and densely packed cookie-cutter homes give way to forests, wide-open spaces, and, yes, cornfields. Most communities south of I-80/I-294, such as Homewood and Lansing, remain white enclaves. By the time you hit Will County just south of Chicago Heights, you've driven past 52% (154,284 of 297,712 votes cast in the 2012 congressional race) of the district's voters since crossing over from Chicago. Roughly half of that suburban vote share is in the mostly black northern suburbs, roughly half is in the mostly white southern suburbs, but all of it is solidly Democratic.

In stark contrast, Will County, from Steger and Crete all the way down to Peotone and Beecher, is rural, white, and Republican. Only 8% of the district's vote resides here, despite a land area as big as all the turf we had covered to the north. Another 20 miles south, through Kankakee County, and the district finally comes to an end—the low population density and farmland sharply different than where we began. Anchored by the relatively large city of Kankakee, Kankakee County accounts for a larger 15% of the district by 2012 vote share, but it votes even more reliably with the GOP. Kankakee's sizable black population (about 11,000 strong) accounts for virtually every Democratic vote cast down here. Overall, the Illinois Second is 29.6% white, 55.3% black, and 12.8% Latino.

The stage is set; next, meet the cast of characters—though certainly not all of them. Eleven of the 15 Democratic candidates are pretty clearly hopeless. The main two names to remember are former State Representative Robin Kelly and former Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson, the undisputed frontrunners. Thought to be a dark horse by some is Alderman Anthony Beale, although in this blogger's opinion, a win by him would be a real shocker. Pulling up the rear of the viable candidates but managing to separate himself from the riffraff is former Congressman Mel Reynolds, who actually preceded Jackson in this seat but had to resign himself due to charges of statutory rape. (Two other potentially potent candidates, State Senator Napoleon Harris and State Senator Toi Hutchinson, have dropped out in recent weeks.)

In this majority-black district, the only white name of the six above is Halvorson; a roughly proportional two of them (Beale and Reynolds) are from Chicago city proper. Halvorson is from idyllic Crete, part of Will County. Kelly is from Matteson, one of the few mainly black communities south of I-80/I-294. Kelly is also the best-financed candidate; she raised $200,000 by December 31, unfortunately the most recent figure we'll have before the election. Before dropping out, Hutchinson has raised the second most at $135,000; interestingly, Halvorson had raised only about as much as Beale ($50,000). Reynolds hasn't even raised enough to trigger an FEC report.

It is on December 31 that our play begins. At the start of the new year, Halvorson had real reason to be confident, despite those low fundraising totals: in a jumbled, yet-to-be-defined field, she had the name recognition and thus the advantage. The old (pre-redistricting) congresswoman for the southern half of the Illinois Second before losing in the Republican wave of 2010, Halvorson also benefited from a split in the black vote between Kelly, Hutchinson, Beale, and the other black candidates in the race.

Polling at the time bore this out. Both the Kelly campaign and the Hutchinson campaign released internal polls in early January:

Kelly poll Hutchinson poll
Debbie Halvorson 25% 16%
Toi Hutchinson 16% 12%
Robin Kelly 15% 8%
Anthony Beale 10% 5%
Napoleon Harris 9% 7%
Mel Reynolds 8% 7%
Conducted Jan. 3–7 Jan. 8–10
Sample 500 LV 400 LV

Bear in mind that each campaign's poll is probably biased by five or so points in their candidate's favor, but a clear picture of the race emerges: Hutchinson and Kelly, with their fundraising advantages, were poised to strike. Kelly's poll also showed her with leads among African-American women and suburban African-Americans; in such a black district, that indicated she had more room to grow. Importantly, Kelly's poll also showed one more thing: a deep dislike within the district for the National Rifle Association.

Alongside typical bread-and-butter topics like seniors or the construction of a third airport for Chicagoland in Peotone, one issue that quickly took hold in this heavily urban district was gun control. Especially after the high-profile shooting of a 15-year-old Chicagoan who had performed at President Obama's inauguration, Kelly emphasized that her "F" rating from the NRA made her the best candidate to stop gun violence in the district. Kelly also didn't miss a chance to point out that her two main rivals, Halvorson and Hutchinson, both had received "A" grades from the organization. Halvorson also didn't do herself any favors by continuing to oppose the assault-weapons ban—although Hutchinson quickly saw the error of her ways and distanced herself from the NRA.

By February 1, the momentum in the race was clearly Kelly's. First, Napoleon Harris dropped out, endorsing Kelly and helping to consolidate some of the African-American vote. Then Kelly scored her real coup—an endorsement and $2.1 million from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's anti-gun super PAC. Then again, you probably knew that already, since Bloomberg's involvement nationalized the special election around the issue of gun control and made that the defining issue of the campaign for good.

Courtesy of Mayor Bloomberg, commercials lambasting Halvorson and Hutchinson have been airing nonstop in Chicago since early February, and they took their toll. The Kelly campaign released another internal poll, conducted February 4–5 of 400 likely voters, that flaunted her new frontrunner status:

Vote Share Change from Jan.
Robin Kelly 26% +11%
Debbie Halvorson 22% –3%
Toi Hutchinson 20% +4%
Anthony Beale 10%None
Mel Reynolds 5% –3%

The poll also showed that Kelly was now the preferred candidate of African-American voters overall and anti-gun voters overall. As the dialogue in the campaign and debates continued to center on gun control, Kelly looked unstoppable. The current was so strong that even one of the supposed frontrunners saw no path to victory; on February 17, just nine days before Election Day, Hutchinson dropped out of the race and endorsed Kelly. Word was that internal Hutchinson polls had found Kelly with an insurmountable double-digit lead over the field.

Critics cried foul, as they saw a last-minute backroom deal to anoint a single black candidate and tell the African-American community to get behind her en masse. However, Hutchinson hails from—and represents in the State Senate—the southern part of the district, and her strongest base of support proved to be the (predominantly white) voters in this area. To Kelly's chagrin, there is good reason to think Hutchinson's voters were predisposed to switch to Halvorson, not Kelly, after her withdrawal. (In fact, Hutchinson was once Halvorson's chief of staff and now represents Halvorson's old State Senate district.)

What's more, in recent days, Kelly has experienced the backlash typical of a frontrunner. Halvorson and others have been trying to paint Bloomberg's involvement as a liability, urging voters not to let the election "get bought" by outside forces. On Thursday, news also broke that Kelly was facing an ethics probe over timesheet abuse while working for the Illinois treasurer's office. Since this news became public, Kelly has not and will not participate in any more debates—no doubt hoping to freeze the race as is, but also avoiding tough questions about the probe.

Oddly, that last hyperlink references a We Ask America poll taken recently in the district, but that poll exists nowhere else on the internet. Therefore, the most recent snapshot of the race is also the only public poll taken in the race to my knowledge. Taken February 17–19 (before the ethics news), it shows a tightening race: its 500 participants gave Halvorson 21% to Kelly's 17%—a statistical tie.

Tomorrow, as the cliché goes, the only poll that matters takes place: Election Day. It certainly looks like a nailbiter, as Halvorson seems to be getting a second wind at exactly the right time. Still, it's worth paying attention to the raw numbers—specifically, how Halvorson's support is pretty static (between 21% and 25% in almost every poll). To put it bluntly, this is her ceiling: the number of likely white voters in the Democratic primary.

Like any election, the result will come down to turnout. For Halvorson to win, that means turning out white voters; for Kelly to win, it means consolidating the support of enough black voters to break the 21–25% threshold. A real X-factor in Tuesday's turnout, however, will be a snowstorm expected to buffet the region tomorrow with heavy winds and three to five inches of snow. Turnout for special elections is already extremely low, making them unpredictable as is; this storm could push turnout into the single digits.

Whom will that help? My money is on Kelly, as her support comes mainly from the black voters who live in more densely packed areas. Simply put, polling places in urban and dense suburban areas are closer and easier to get to than those in the rural areas where Halvorson is drawing her support. Just because of Halvorson supporters' reliance on their cars and driving longer distances to vote, I expect that she'll be hurt the most by the weather. My final prediction: Kelly by six.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Oscar Categories Ripest for an Upset

We have a highly unusual Oscar season on our hands. To start, the Best Picture frontrunner—the Iranian-hostage thriller Argo—doesn't make any sense. Argo is looking to become the first movie since Driving Miss Daisy (1989) to win Best Picture without even being nominated for Best Director. Stranger still, Argo could become the first film since Grand Hotel in 1932 to win only one Oscar—the one for Best Picture.

Indeed, it is an award season without much precedent. Last year, in my Academy Awards analysis that ended up getting every single category wrong, I tried to match up which categories track well with which other categories in terms of both wins and nominations. As Argo implies, that approach is pretty much out the window this year. Based on the other trick that Oscar prognosticators use—precursor awards like the Golden Globes and SAG Awards—a modest favorite has been identified in almost every category, but because of the lack of any historical support for many of the nominees, there is a sense that many of these favorites could be subject to upsets. (Or, after all this uncertainty, they could also all just win. That would be a bit of an anti-climax, though.)

So, this year, I figured I would take a look back at recent Oscar history and examine the circumstances that usually surround Oscar upsets—in essence, to see whether we can predict the unpredictable. Indeed, literally every single year, there is at least one category where the widely acknowledged favorite falls flat on its face.

According to my analysis of the past 10 Oscar ceremonies and pundit coverage thereof, the category that has ruined the most Oscar pools is Best Cinematography. A whopping six out of 10 times (in 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011), the conventional wisdom has been wrong about this award—so much so that you might actually be better served betting against this year's favorite, Life of Pi. Interestingly, most of these upsets may be explained by an aversion to two specific cinematographers: Roger Deakins and Emmanuel Lubezki. Between them, Deakins and Lubezki share 15 Oscar nominations without a single win, despite being heavily favored to take home the gold in 2005 (Lubezki, Children of Men), 2007 (Deakins, No Country for Old Men), 2010 (Deakins, True Grit), and 2011 (Lubezki, Tree of Life). Deakins is nominated again this year for lighting the brilliantly shot Skyfall, but that film is seen as a distant second in the race. Furthermore, Life of Pi is shot in 3D, which has done well in this category recently (Avatar, Hugo). Although these are typically famous last words in this category, I don't expect an upset here.

Next, Best Original Song has produced four upsets in the same time frame, though none since 2006. In 2002, Eminem's "Lose Yourself" beat Bono's "The Hands That Built America"; in 2004, "Al Otro Lado del Río" triumphed amid a murky field of superstars; in 2005, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" capitalized on a vote split between "In the Deep" and "Travelin' Thru"; and in 2006, "I Need To Wake Up" beat a triad of Dreamgirls melodies. What these upsets teach us is that the Academy isn't afraid to honor random films in this category; none of those films was nominated in more than one other category. It also demonstrates a perhaps surprising proclivity for hip hop. Neither of those criteria is particularly helpful in predicting this year's winner, but it's worth noting that Skyfall, the strong frontrunner here, has four other nominations this year. If Adele somehow loses for that title song (which I doubt), perhaps Ted's "Everybody Needs a Best Friend" best fits the upset bill?

Best Adapted Screenplay also has a 40% rate of surprises. The most recent came in 2009, when Precious upset Up in the Air; before that, you saw three straight surprises in 2002, 2003, and 2004. The common thread here may be that Adapted Screenplay can be more like Original Screenplay than it's given credit for. Often, the award for Best Original Screenplay goes to the year's funky, scrappy, original film as a sort of consolation prize—the Academy seems to be saying, "Well done. You deserve something, but you're not mainstream enough to be Best Picture." (Think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Juno, and Midnight in Paris.) In Best Original Screenplay, this attitude is usually foreseen by pundits, so it never turns out to be an upset. But in Best Adapted Screenplay, pundits continually choose one of the top two Best Picture contenders—yet this is wrong almost half the time. Sideways in 2004 (a comedy that fits the Original Screenplay profile perfectly) and 2002's The Pianist (which turned out to be beloved by the Academy, winning three major awards) stole this Oscar away from the eventual Best Picture winner, also nominated in the category. This year, Argo—and secondarily Lincoln—are the Best Picture favorites and thus the favorites to win Best Adapted Screenplay. However, recent history suggests that there's a coin flip's chance that the statue will go to comedy Silver Linings Playbook. There is a strong contingent of voters that love it, as evidenced by its eight nominations, and Argo and Lincoln could split the vote. Silver Linings also won this same award at the BAFTAs last weekend, a major precursor indication.

Four categories experienced upsets in three of the past 10 years: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, and Best Editing. Given its reputation for upsets, it will actually probably surprise many close Oscar watchers that Best Foreign Language Film is, at best, the fourth-most volatile category. It has this reputation thanks to an unusual voting requirement that winnows the voting pool to a much more select few than in most categories—making it more unpredictable. Another category that has used the same system over the past 10 years (although this year it is opening voting to the entire Academy membership), Best Documentary Feature, also had only two upsets during that time. While there have been high-profile losses in Best Foreign Language Film before (The White Ribbon in 2009; Waltz with Bashir in 2008; Pan's Labyrinth in 2006), they're just not that much more common than in "normal" categories. Therefore, I fully expect Amour and especially, with the Documentary democratization, Searching for Sugar Man to conquer their respective categories.

The other three three-fers aren't particularly noteworthy, as we are getting into the zone where categories aren't particularly unique (or prolific) in their upset tendencies—it's just random variation and luck of the draw. In Best Sound Editing, two of the three times when the winner came as a shock (2007 and 2009), it was when pundits were predicting a split with Best Sound Mixing—but instead the same film won both awards. This shouldn't be surprising, since the Academy as a whole tends to be pretty ignorant about the sound categories, especially the difference between mixing and editing. Upsets can therefore occur when they confuse the two and just mark the same film on their ballot twice. This year, Les Misérables is leading the field in Sound Mixing, but that's no help for predicting Sound Editing—Les Misérables isn't nominated there!

It is also worth a mention that Academy voters seem to dislike Alexandre Desplat, whose two regal go-arounds as the frontrunner for Best Original Score (The King's Speech and The Queen) both saw him go home empty-handed; he was beaten by more experimental fare (The Social Network and Babel, respectively) both times. Desplat is nominated this year for Argo, so don't count on a win here for the Affleck film; the haunting Life of Pi is the favorite anyway.

As for Best Editing, action films tend to win this category overall, and two-thirds of the upsets were indeed action films (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2011 and The Departed in 2006). However, the other third was The Aviator defeating the more action-y Million Dollar Baby in 2004. With the action-packed Argo the frontrunner in this category as well, it seems safe, unless Zero Dark Thirty can knock it off its perch.

All other categories (excepting the shorts, for which not enough information was available to analyze) have had only one or two upsets over the years—a pretty normal tally, since pundits can't be right all the time. (An interesting footnote is that, technically, there has not been an upset victory in Best Costume Design for the past 10 years. However, all you have to do is go back to last year, when the race was too close to call, to see the limitations of this stat; there can't be an upset if there is no favorite!)

When we get to this level, perhaps we're better served looking at the circumstances when an upset has occurred rather than the categories it has occurred in. One easily discernible pattern is when a candidate garners a last-minute surge in support. Therefore, it can be instructive to see who appears to be gaining momentum in the last days before the ceremony; if someone goes from a long-shot to a dark horse in the last week, they may peak at just the right time and end up taking home the prize. (It's the exact same phenomenon as last year's Iowa caucuses, when Rick Santorum entered the final weekend surging, but still behind, in the polls but ended up winning the state by 34 votes.) The classic example of this comes from the 2005 awards, when Crash was perceived to have pulled into a tie with Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture; it ultimately triumphed, of course. It's also thought that Eddie Murphy's extremely salient role in Norbit turned off Academy voters so much that they turned around and gave his 2006 Best Supporting Actor trophy (for Dreamgirls; it would have been well deserved) to Little Miss Sunshine's Alan Arkin. And, going back farther, Russell Crowe's boorish behavior probably created a backlash that caused the heavy 2001 Best Actor favorite to succumb to Denzel Washington. Unfortunately, however, these trends are much harder to identify in the technical categories, which are seldom subject to such trackable, day-by-day gossip.

Surprises also often happen when a category is a total tossup, allowing a third candidate to take advantage of the opening created by so many split voters (again, you're probably familiar with this from politics). This happened most memorably at the 2002 ceremony, when an undercurrent of support for The Pianist was able to break through in the Best Actor category (split down the middle between Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson) and Best Director category (Rob Marshall and Martin Scorsese). Likewise, controversial director Tim Burton may never have enough mainstream support to win a majority of Oscar votes, but a big enough chunk of the Academy loves him that he has been able to capitalize when the mainstream vote has been split. In 2007, his Sweeney Todd snuck in between co-favorites Atonement and There Will Be Blood for Best Art Direction, and Alice in Wonderland pulled off the same trick, in the same category, in 2010 (victimizing Inception and The King's Speech). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the most recent beneficiary, snagging a Best Editing award last year despite 12-to-1 odds (!). As you may recall, that was one of the categories I analyzed in last year's piece, where I found it to be a two-way race between The Artist and Hugo.