As news came in that Christine O’Donnell had pulled off a major upset in the Republican primary in Delaware, experts who had predicted her defeat and Republican party leaders who had supported establishment favorite Mike Castle against her were embarrassed, confounded and ultimately angry.
Despite predictions of low turnout and a close race, and despite her own state party leader leading a very dirty campaign against her and despite the mdeia writing her off, O’Donnell won by a solid 6% and turnout was double what had been predicted.
Immediately, media experts began declaring that this was a disaster for the Republican Party because pre-primary polling showed O’Donnell running much less well than Castle against Democrat nominee Chris Coons. The talking point has become that Castle was a winner and O’Donnell is a guaranteed loser and that the Tea Party which had supported her had now cost the GOP an easy seat gain in the Senate.
In keeping with their disastrous record of supporting all the wrong candidates in this year’s primaries, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was right out in front of this issue with exactly the wrong response, declaring through the Wall Street Journal that they had no intention of spending any money to support O’Donnell, writing her off as a loser.
As results came in, pundits were pointing to a recent Rasmussen poll and declaring that 44% of the Republicans who voted for Castle are going to switch parties in the general election and vote for Coons and that is going to cost O’Donnell the race. It’s on this trend that they base their prediction of a hard loss for O’Donnell.
But someone in the political/media establishment is either lying or not very good at math. This calculation seems to have been based on the assumption that if O’Donnell loses all those hardcore Republican votes that will doom her, but the math does not support that conclusion. It does not take into consideration the disparity of Republican and Democrat voter turnout. In fact, if the same number of voters turn out who voted in the primary in both parties and 44% of the Republicans who voted for Castle switch to Coons, O’Donnell will actually win the election by about 2000 votes and 2 percentage points.
What’s more, the primaries in Delaware are closed primaries where only registered party members can vote. That means that there are tens of thousands of independent voters who will be voting in the general election who did not vote in the primary, and independent voters tend to vote Republican by almost a 2 to 1 margin and are particularly motivated by outsider, anti-establishment candidates like O’Donnell and may turn out in even larger numbers as a result. Add them in and things look very different.
By my analysis from national trends it seems likely that even without party money, Tea Party momentum and the independent vote will push O’Donnell to a winning margin somewhere between 6% and 8%. Just as the experts and the insiders were wrong in writing her off as they were still doing up until a few days ago they are likely to be just as wrong about her prospects in the general election.
Of course, this still leaves open the question of whether O’Donnell is well qualified for the job and whether the allegations raised against her in the primary will hurt her in the general election. Some of the accusations against her have at least some substance, while others are silly. Her past discussion of masturbation as a sin on MTV is just a silly smear. Her ambiguous educational background and poor financial history are more serious.
O’Donnell is mainly running on personal charisma and the ability to make a great speech, qualities which both Castle and Coons lack. Her status as a political outsider is like gold in the current environment and as we’ve seen with Sharon Angle in Nevada and Nikki Haley in South Carolina, being targeted for smear campaigns by the establishment seems to turn into an asset rather than a liability. It makes you an underdog and the voters are eating that up, especially when it seems to be the old, white, male establishment picking on a younger, charismatic female candidate.
Today we saw a primary upset which sent the political and media establishment reeling. In November I suspect they will get another shock from Delaware and it will just be one of many nationwide.
A version of this article appeared previously on Blogcritics Magazine