Of all the big primary votes Tuesday, the biggest surprise was Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln's win in Arkansas. What happened, and why was the conventional wisdom so wrong?
1) Being an outsider still matters. In the beginning, it was easy for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter to claim the outsider mantle. But by the end of the campaign, after labor poured in millions of dollars to bash Lincoln, Halter looked more like a pawn than a principled anti-establishment fighter. One Democratic strategist argues that in this economic climate, Lincoln's attacks on Halter over his company's outsourcing of jobs were very effective.
2) The pundit class relied heavily on history -- incumbents who poll under 50 percent rarely win runoffs -- and their gut but had no real data to back it up. Plus, the only public polling released during the runoff was taken for Daily Kos, an unabashed Lincoln basher. Not surprisingly, those two polls showed Halter ahead.
3) A vote for D.C. Morrison, the virtually unknown and underfunded Democrat, in the May 18 primary was not necessarily a vote against Lincoln. Pundits assumed -- again, based on historical trends -- that a vote for Halter or Morrison in May was a protest vote against Lincoln. However, in the five counties where Morrison did the best in May, Lincoln improved her standing significantly on Tuesday. Was their vote on May 18 just a warning shot to a candidate they always expected to go back to, or did Lincoln ultimately have to sway them back?
4) Organized labor fell flat. Given the dreadful track record of Organizing for America and labor at turning out the vote since the 2008 elections, Democrats should be very nervous about GOTV operations this fall. Forget about coattails, what happened to targeting? Meanwhile, the Democratic congressional and Senate campaign committees can only dream about how they would have spent the $9 million that labor poured into what can be fairly described as a personal vendetta.
5) Former President Bill Clinton still has got it. Sure, this is his home state. But he also helped turn Lincoln from Washington insider to persecuted outsider. Remember, voters do not just hate Washington, they distrust all major institutions. Clinton might be the most requested surrogate for Democrats this year.
6) Lincoln is still the underdog in the general election. The good news for Lincoln: Her opponent, GOP Rep. John Boozman, has a D.C. mailing address too, and like her, he voted for the financial bailout in 2008. Still, she represents the incumbent party, which is not all that popular in Arkansas. Plus, all those talking about her win as a victory for centrism did not pay much attention to the message she was sending via TV ads. She started this campaign boasting about her opposition to a healthcare public option and ended it boasting about her vote for Obama's healthcare plan and the stimulus. That is certain to be used against her this fall.
7) Lincoln's strong showing in Pulaski County was helped by a solid turnout among African-American voters. Clinton and President Obama helped in this regard. And, as one strategist pointed out, Halter also did not give black voters a reason to fire Lincoln.
This article appears in the June 12, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.