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Art of the single shot: How less can mean more when voters get to choose two

Tucson Republican Rep. Ethan Orr (left) and Phoenix Democratic Rep. Eric Meyer (File photos)

Tucson Republican Rep. Ethan Orr (left) and Phoenix Democratic Rep. Eric Meyer (File photos)

At first glance it might make sense for the two main political parties to fight over every seat possible.

But when it comes to Arizona’s House of Representatives, where voters elect two candidates to represent each district, a more tactful approach can sometimes pay off.

Instead of running two candidates for both possible seats, a single candidate — a “single-shot” — in a district where the conditions are right can result in one win where two candidates might have produced two losses.

The strategy is an election mathematics trick. The goal for a single-shot candidate is to get core supporters to cast only one vote in the race and persuade others to split their votes between the candidate and an opponent.  That maximizes the candidate’s own numbers and dilutes the opponents’ numbers.

A joint analysis by the Arizona Capitol Times and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting shows how two single-shot candidates beat the odds in their uphill-battle districts: Democrat Eric Meyer in Legislative District 28 and Republican Ethan Orr in Legislative District 9.

Meyer, who was first elected as a single-shot candidate in 2008, kept his seat in the Legislature this year after he and two incumbent Republican House members were drawn into a single northeast Phoenix district during the decennial redistricting. Meyer, who took on Republicans Kate Brophy McGee and Amanda Reeve, came in second despite the district’s moderate Republican registration advantage.

And Orr, now a freshman in House, came in second in his north Tucson district against two non-incumbent Democratic candidates, despite his district’s slight Democratic registration edge.

In both cases, the single-shot underdogs were successful because a few important factors lined up just right. They took advantage of ideologically and demographically fractured electorates in their districts. Additionally, their personal narratives appealed to more than just their base voters and a strong voter education and mobilization effort about the single-shot strategy helped make the math work.

The right district makeup

Not every district is ripe for a single-shot strategy, but LDs 28 and 9, in mirror-image fashion, show where it can work.

First, the district needs to be relatively competitive. LD28 has a roughly 10-point Republican edge, and LD9 has about a seven-point Democratic edge, according to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission’s competitiveness analysis.

But for a single-shot candidate, it’s important that those competitive numbers are created by clear demographic and partisan divides, not by a homogeneous electorate of swing voters.

Both Meyer and Orr said this helped.  It provided a distinct target of strong core supporters who only have to be mobilized and educated about the single-shot strategy, leaving a distinct target of swing voters to be persuaded using their personal message.

LD28 is mostly white and Republican, with Paradise Valley, the Camelback corridor and wealthy areas directly surrounding Camelback Mountain falling into that category and geographically making up the bulk of the district. There are pockets, however, all along the northern, western and southern edges of the district that are densely concentrated with Hispanic and Democratic voters.

The map below shows LD28 precincts colored by partisan registration advantage. Precincts outlined in white show where Hispanic voting age population composition is greatest. Click on individual precincts for partisan and demographic details.

LD9 is more evenly split among Democrats and Republicans, but like LD28, they are segregated geographically. The northern part of the district on the outskirts of the central Tucson area is more Republican, while the urban center leans Democratic with a higher Hispanic composition.

Both Meyer and Orr got more votes from their respective stronghold areas, but they were also able to explain to voters how a single-shot candidacy works and how to use their vote — and non-vote — strategically.

The map below shows LD9 precincts colored by partisan registration advantage. Precincts outlined in white show where Hispanic voting age population composition is greatest. Click on individual precincts for partisan and demographic details.

The strategy-education campaign

With both Meyer and Orr, a key to success is evident in precinct-level election data: In precincts where the single-shot candidate got a greater percentage of the vote, fewer votes were cast in the race.

LD28 undervote trends

Eric Meyer vote vs undervote

Kate Brophy McGee vote vs undervote

Amanda Reeve vote vs undervoteLD9 undervote trends

Ethan Orr vote vs undervote

Victoria Steele vote vs undervote

Mohur Sarah Sidwha vote vs undervote

Known as the “undervote,” this figure shows where a voter either didn’t cast a vote, or cast fewer than allowed.  And it demonstrates that supporters of the single-shot candidate knew to cast a ballot for only their candidate and not a candidate from the opposing party. The ballot clearly explains to select two candidates in the race, although voting for one candidate is allowed.

Candidates opposing the single-shot candidate want the opposite — the maximum number of voters casting ballots for two people.

Without educating voters about the single-shot strategy, telling them that they will need to cast just one vote and throw the other away, the strategy will not work.

Both Orr and Meyer said they don’t think they could have overcome their voter registration disadvantage in their districts without using the single shot strategy.

Meyer hammered the strategy in his district. When campaigning to Republican households, he humbly asked for their second vote. When he knocked on Democratic doors, he drove home the point with a polished pitch that ended with “If you only vote for me, it makes it easier for me to win.”

When it came to independent voters in the district, Meyer noted that even if he asked for their single vote, if that larger pool of independent voters wanted to cast a ballot for a Democrat and a Republican, he would inevitably get one, while only one of his two opponents would get one, furthering the single-shot strategy.

Meyer said all of his volunteers knew to stress the strategy, and knew which kind of voter they were talking with when they knocked on a door. He also stressed the single-shot strategy in mailers targeted to specific types of voters in his district.

Orr shied away from asking voters to disregard their second vote, and he let the Pima County GOP push that message instead.

Orr said the Pima County Republican Party informed its members about the single shot strategy, but he didn’t bring it up at Republican events because he didn’t want to send a contradictory or hyper-partisan message.

“What I didn’t want to do was turn it into an R versus D race,” he said. “I wanted to turn it into a Tucson community race. Me going to Republicans and saying, ‘Don’t vote for the Democrats,’ would have made it much easier for Democrats to say, ‘Don’t vote for the Republican.’”

The standout candidate

Both of the 2012 single-shot victors have deep ties to the areas they represent and personal stories that have a naturally broad appeal.

Orr is a former adjunct professor at the University of Arizona who now works with Linkages, a nonprofit that helps the developmentally disabled get jobs. He was involved with the Democratic Party when he was in college in the 1990s, and can speak to a diverse crowd.

Pima County GOP chair Carolyn Cox said Orr’s dynamic personal history, which resonates with both Democrats and Republicans, was the key factor allowing him to win in the district, which has a 7 percentage point advantage for Democrats.

The map below shows LD9 precincts colored orange where Ethan Orr received a greater portion of the vote. Precincts outlined in white show where the undervote was greatest. Click on individual precincts for vote details.

Meyer is an emergency room doctor and member of the Scottsdale School Board who has represented the area since 2008. He was running against two incumbents in the November election, and beat former Rep. Amanda Reeve by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Though LD28 has a much larger partisan split than Orr’s district — Republicans hold a 10 percentage point advantage — Meyer has consistently been able to win the second spot by talking about his background in education and medicine and by running a strong single shot campaign.

The map below shows LD28 precincts colored orange where Eric Meyer received a greater portion of the vote. Precincts outlined in white show where the undervote was greatest. Click on individual precincts for vote details.

The right kind of opponents

During redistricting, Reeve was drawn into LD28 from a more conservative district anchored in the northwest Valley, minimizing her power of incumbency in the new area. Meyer’s mailers went after Reeve, highlighting more ideologically conservative stances than what the electorate in the newly drawn district had a taste for.

Meyer had run as a single shot in the district twice before, and the voters in the area were somewhat aware of the strategy, even before legions of Democratic Party volunteers knocked on their doors to educate them.

It also helped Meyer that Libertarian Jim Iannuzo was on the ballot, which pulled some Republican votes.

Orr’s Democratic opponents faced a bitter primary battle. The winners came from different factions of the party and didn’t coordinate their campaigns, which allowed him time to define himself not as a Republican, but as a centrist community leader.

The fact that he’s a former Democrat, works in a field more often associated with liberal causes and can speak the Democratic lingo on issues like education, helped him to not be seen as a threat to Democrats, he said.

Other districts where the single shot might play well

LD21

Just to the west of LD28 is LD21, covering parts of Phoenix, Glendale and Peoria. The Republican edge in LD20 is stronger than in LD28, but like LD28, it is fractured into distinct racial and ideological divides. The same Democratic-leaning, Hispanic area that Meyer relied upon in LD28 spills into LD21 along their shared border.

Rep. Eric Meyer said he and other Democrats had expected a single-shot strategy in LD21 in 2012 by Jackie Thrasher, but that her candidacy may have been spoiled by the addition of a second Democrat, Tonya Norwood, running there as well.

LD18

Maricopa County Democrats say they’ve also debated a single-shot candidacy in LD18, covering Ahwatukee and parts of Chandler, Tempe and Mesa, which on paper is more competitive than LD28 or LD21. Lots of energy and resources were poured into the Democrats who ran there in 2012, but neither was successful.

The district has a smaller Republican edge than LD28, but its largely homogenous demographics, soft partisanship and lack of minority voters may make it more challenging for a single-shot candidate than LD28 or LD21.

LD11

Pima County Democrats say they’re eyeing LD11, which stretches from the northern boundary of Pima County through Pinal County to the southern border of Maricopa County.

The district is represented by hardline conservative Reps. Steve Smith and Adam Kwasman. But the roughly 16-point Republican edge may be just too much to overcome.

LD10

Right next door to LD9, with very similar demographics and voter registration numbers, is Legislative District 10.  Two Republicans, former Rep. Ted Vogt and former GOP district chair Todd Clodfelter, ran against Democrats Stephanie Mach and Rep. Bruce Wheeler in the November election. Republicans failed to pick up either seat.

Had only Vogt run in the district, Meyer said, he’d likely be back in the Legislature.

But looking forward, three incumbent Democrats will most likely make the single-shot strategy a more difficult one than it would have been in 2012.

2 comments

  1. Don’t believe the single shot stuff in LD9, it does not work in evenly balanced districts, only like in Meyer’s district. LD9 was decided by the Benghasi effect, the Ds nominated a Muslim sounding name in the August primary, along comes the killings in Benghasi, and retribution came at the polls.

    For proof, look at the TUSD results, a similarly named candidate there finished dead last by an overwhelming lack of votes. The candidate lost to the 9th place finisher, a Republican and Chamber VP, both a liability in a District Latino and Democrat in demographics. And he got more than double the vote over the last place finisher.

    It is always better to be lucky than good in politics.

  2. Never thought I’d be saying this, but I agree with former state Senator Jeff Hill. Mohur Sidhwa’s name was a liability for her. Furthermore, as the Chair of the LD 9 Democratic Committee I can assure you that we ran a coordinated campaign, and I didn’t see the Democratic primary campaign for the LD 9 House seats as bitter. I was at the Clean Election debate for the primary and the 3 Democratic candidates were extremely civil & cordial to each other. Jeff is right, it pays to be lucky in politics.

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