Kerrey surges despite dwindling Democratic electoral muscle

In 1994, Democrats made up 40 percent of the state’s voters when Bob Kerrey last appeared on a ballot in the state. Now, they’re just 32 percent. This map shows where Democrats lost electoral strength. The lighter the blue, the larger the percentage point loss for the Democrats.

By Journalism 407 students for NewsNetNebraska

Editors note: Journalism 407, a class on investigative and data journalism, combined election results records from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s office going back to 1994 to compile this report.

With less than a week to go before election day, polls show Bob Kerrey and Deb Fischer in an increasingly tight race for the U.S. Senate that few pundits thought would be so close.

A weekend poll from the Omaha World-Herald showed Kerrey within the margin of error of the poll with 48 percent for Fischer to Kerrey’s 45 percent. National prognosticators who were sure Nebraska would give a Senate seat to the Republicans all summer long suddenly aren’t so confident with just days left to vote.

Why were the pundits certain Nebraska would go Republican? In part, it’s because Nebraska is significantly less Democratic in 2012 than it was the last time Kerrey ran for the Senate in 1994, according to an analysis of voter registration patterns.

In 1994, Kerrey’s Democrats controlled 40 percent of the electorate, according to voter registration data from the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. Whereas in 2012, Democrats were just 32 percent of the state’s voters.

Over that time, the proportion of those not affiliated with the Republican or Democratic parties doubled to 20 percent and the slice of GOP voters held mostly steady, at 50 percent in 1994 to 48 percent in 2012. In other words, the bulk of the shift away from major parties has come from the Democratic side of the pie.

“As the number of Republicans in the state grows, it becomes increasingly difficult for Democrats to win,” said University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of political science John Hibbing. “That is why all the congressional seats and all of the statewide offices in all likelihood will be held by the Republicans soon.”

Nebraska now has 96,284 more Republicans than in 1994, when Kerrey defeated Jan Stoney for a second term in the Senate, according to voter registration data. In that same time, the state added only 3,985 Democrats.

Between 1994 and 2012, the state added 130,187 voters who either registered with a third party or with no party affiliation, dwarfing the growth in both major parties combined.

“The number of independents has grown dramatically but many of them in Nebraska are closet Republicans who prefer to maintain the façade that they are independents,” Hibbing said. “Independents in this state tend to break heavily for Republicans, meaning the party registration numbers underestimate Republican strength.”

Which is why few pundits gave Kerrey much of a chance.

“His chances in a statewide race are similar to other Democrats: between slim and none,” said Michael Wagner, political scientist and assistant professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Even Democrats knew it was going to be tough for Kerrey. In Douglas County, the state’s most populous, the head of the county Democrats, Chris Carithers, said their party “held our own.” But more than half of the growth in registered voters has been from non-major-party voters. The remainder was almost evenly split between the GOP and the Democrats.

That pool of independent voters is important to the race and may turn it, Carithers said.

“No one expected it to be a cakewalk, and it’s going to be a squeaker,” he said.

In Sarpy County, the state’s fastest growing county, the number of voters not registering with the two major parties is up more than 200 percent from 1994.

“It’s within a few thousand of overtaking Democrats,” said Wayne Bena, the county’s election official. “More voters don’t want to be part of a party.”

One of the places where the increase in independent voters was most dramatic — numerically anyway — is Furnas County.

The county, which sits on the Kansas border in central Nebraska, actually lost 132 voters between 1994 and 2012. It lost more than 500 Democrats and 32 Republicans. But, at the same time, the county added 402 non-major-party voters — a 365 percent increase.

Still, the county is predominantly Republican — two-thirds of the county’s 3,500 voters belong to the GOP — and will probably continue to be so for some time, said Furnas County Clerk Kennis McClelland.

Voters have likely changed their minds because of what they have seen at a national level but nothing has changed locally, McClelland said.

He said no one talks about Bob Kerrey.

“Furnas County is real strong Republican,” McClelland said.

UNL political science professor Kevin Smith said Kerrey needs to not just win independent and Democrat votes, but Republican votes too. That’s a tough sell, he said. Many Republicans will vote for their candidate, no matter who it is.

“Kerrey has a great resume that would be hard to duplicate, even in fiction,” Smith said, “but it isn’t selling because people are thinking, ‘Well that’s great, but you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican.’”

This story was reported by students Ross Benes, Nate Benes, Michael Bishop, Kim Buckley, Warren Hale, Kelsey Newman, Brandon Olson, Gabriel Potter, Reed Samson, Connor Schuessler and Emily Walkenhorst with Professor Matt Waite.

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