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Analysis of the August 2010 Judicial Election Results in Pinellas County and the Sixth Circuit

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By Spartacus Thrace

Extract of the August 24, 2010 primary election ballot.

The results for the judicial candidates in the August 24th primary election for Pinellas County and the Sixth Judicial Circuit (comprising Pasco and Pinellas counties) are in, and they are revealing.  The following information was derived from data provided by the supervisors of elections for Pasco and Pinellas counties, and by the Florida Secretary of State’s Division of Elections:

Results

As of election day, there were 897,503 registered voters in the Sixth Circuit divided into 334,874 Republicans (219,890 in Pinellas and 114,984 in Pasco); 339,532 Democrats (231,044 in Pinellas and 108,488 in Pasco), and 223,097 “other” (150,202 in Pinellas and 72,895 in Pasco).  A total of 202,943 votes were cast in this election, 147,315 in Pinellas and 55,628 in Pasco (33,788 Republicans, 18,088 Democrats, and 3,752 “other”).

In the Circuit Court Group 18 contest 173,417 votes were cast.  The vote tally was Edward J. Liebling 42,719 (24.63%), Patricia “Trish” Muscarella 68,593 (39.55%), and Kathryn Welsh 62,105 (35.81%).  As no one received more than 50% of the vote, Liebling is out of the race and Muscarella and Welsh face a run-off election on November 2, 2010. Total campaign expenditures were $38,108.69 for Liebling, $56,456.19 for Muscarella, and $25,946.16 for Welsh.  Welsh had the endorsement of the St. Petersburg Times.

In the Circuit Court Group 20 contest 169,904 votes were cast.  The vote tally was Patrice Moore 86,704 (51.03%) and Tom Ramsberger 83,200 (48.96%).  Moore was endorsed by the St. Petersburg Times.  Total campaign expenditures were $21,798.20 for Moore and $59,821.49 for Ramsberger.

In the Circuit Court Group 27 contest 168,303 votes were cast.  The vote tally was LeAnne Lake 28,640 (17.01%), Kelly Ann McKnight 42,193 (25.06%), Keith Meyer 52,287 (31.06%), and Jeff O’Brien 45,183 (26.84%).  As no one received more than 50% of the vote, Lake and McKnight are out of the race and Meyer and O’Brien face a run-off election on November 2, 2010.  In this race, the St. Petersburg Times endorsed Keith Meyer.  Total campaign expenditures were $12,065.48 for Lake, $14,043.83 for McKnight, $43,527.34 for Meyer, and $13,339.41 for O’Brien.

In the Circuit Court Group 29 contest 170,673 votes were cast.  The vote tally was incumbent Hon. Michael Francis Andrews 91,773 (53.77%) and Deborah Moss 78,900 (46.22%).  The St. Petersburg Times endorsed Andrews.  Total campaign expenditures were $88,657.85 for Andrews and $41,990.44 for Moss.

In the Circuit Group 30 contest 166,982 votes were cast.  The vote tally was Susan St. John 76,726 (45.94%) and Kimberly “Kim” Todd 90,256 (54.05%).  The St. Petersburg Times endorsed Todd.  Total campaign expenditures were $15,390.31 for St. John and $47,423.46 for Todd.  This race is remarkable for several reasons, including the facts that Todd overcame a ballot order effect that favored her opponent, and was the second-highest vote-getter (90,256) after Andrews (91,773) despite being in a judicial race with a turnout that was 3,691 votes smaller than the Andrews-Moss turnout.  Todd’s defeat of St. John was so uniform and complete that, in Pinellas County for example, St. John was able to out-poll Todd in only 31 precincts out of a total of 376.

In the race for Pinellas County Court Judge, Group 8 a total of 121,236 votes were cast.  Incumbent Hon. Thomas B. Freeman trounced his opponent Wayne C. Mineo, with 83,317 votes (68.72%) going to Freeman and 37,919 (31.28%) to Mineo.  The St. Petersburg Times endorsed Freeman.  Total campaign expenditures were $42,745.26 for Freeman and $10,973.13 for Mineo.

Female Judicial Candidate Superiority

This results of this election may have finally put to rest the local myth of superiority of female judicial candidates over male judicial candidates that arose in the wake of Susan Gardner’s 2008 defeat of Angus Williams 346,717 to 190,136 in the Sixth Circuit Judge Group 8 race, despite Williams having the endorsement of the St. Petersburg Times and his outspending Gardner more than 8.6 to 1 in the campaign.  Although Muscarella and Welsh did out-poll Liebling who was at the top of the ballot in the Group 18 race, Meyer and O’Brien out-polled both Lake and McKnight who appeared on the ballot above their names.  It now appears in retrospect that Gardner, who expended a total of $15,199.44 in her campaign, used the combined advantages of ballot order effect and outworking her opponent to overcome Williams, who expended a total of $131,989.71 in his campaign.

Newspaper Effect

Endorsement by the St. Petersburg Times may have also played a small, but important, role these elections. The “newspaper effect”, by which voter preference is influenced approximately 3% in favor of the candidate endorsed by the local newspaper, in combination with other effects, seemed to be apparent in the fact that every candidate endorsed by the St. Petersburg Times either won outright (Moore, Andrews, Todd, and Freeman) or made it into the runoffs (Meyer and Welsh).

Ballot Order Effect

At least two of the candidates, McKnight and St. John, chose races in which their names would appear ahead of other candidates already in the race, apparently banking on the “ballot order effect” to improve their chances of success.  The ballot order effect is based on the notion that candidates appearing at or near the top of a set of candidates will garner more votes than those whose names appear afterward.  Theoretically the effect increases from approximately 2% at the top of the ballot to as much as 5% as the voter goes down-ballot.  As the judicial candidates all appeared down-ballot in relation to most of the other candidates on the August 24th ballot, all of the top-listed judicial candidates should have had a significant edge over their lower-listed opponents.  As born out by the results in the Circuit Court Group 18, 27, and 30 races, any such advantage can be overcome by outworking the opposition or other effects.

Use of the Internet for Messaging

Another, somewhat intangible effect, in this was the use of the internet to distribute the candidate’s message. The impetus for this is the relatively meager coverage the mainstream media gives judicial races. Those who made the most extensive and effective use of the internet, including email, social networking sites such as Facebook, and YouTube, tended to have somewhat stronger support at the polls due to the efforts of those who felt that they had a personal connection with their candidate. One of the candidates, Kimberly Todd, made extensive use of the internet to promote her “brand” and distinguish herself from her opponent. This may have contributed to the result that the point spread between Todd and her opponent was greater than in any of the other circuit court races.

Conclusions

An examination of the various judicial campaigns reviewed in this article reveals that the biggest factors in electability of a judicial candidate are name recognition and a personal connection to voters. Much of this is driven by the candidate’s personality, energy, and creativity, but external factors such as financial resources, quality and frequency of campaign consultation and advice from experts, number and quality of prominent endorsements, and the ability to conduct a long, grueling campaign without making embarrassing mistakes (especially when it comes to public statements and campaign financing). Judicial campaigns are fraught with risk, but the risks can be manageable by a competent candidate who prepares in detail for the campaign. The successful candidate thus can “see” the campaign all the way to Election Day and more effectively accumulates and manages the required resources to accomplish the mission than his or her opponent, while the unsuccessful one does not, and that appears to be what separated the winners and losers in these races.

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