Politics & Policy

The Beauty of Alvin Greene

His fairy-tale mystery victory is refreshing, because it subversively suggests that everything we think we know about campaigning is wrong.

How the heck did Alvin Greene, an unemployed veteran who lives with his parents and who had no discernable campaign activity, not only win the South Carolina Democratic Senate primary, but win by a wide margin?

So unexpected is this result that official Washington is shaking off its stunned shock and throwing a mild tantrum. No less than David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, suggested Sunday that Greene’s victory was not legitimate. “It doesn’t appear [legitimate] to me,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “The whole thing is odd. I don’t know how really to explain it. I don’t think anyone else does either.”

South Carolina’s most prominent Democrat, Rep. Jim Clyburn, sounds convinced that the results cannot be genuine: “I know a Democratic pattern, I know a Republican pattern, and I saw in the Democratic primary elephant dung all over the place,” he told CNN’s State of the Union. Clyburn says he does not see himself supporting Greene, and says he believes Greene was planted in the race by someone.

The interest group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is demanding an investigation by the Federal Election Commission.

Still, an FEC investigation of what, precisely? Does anyone actually want to stake his reputation on an accusation of a vast conspiracy to commit ballot fraud, for the sole purpose of getting Alvin Greene instead of Vic Rawl on the ballot against Jim DeMint? Are we really supposed to think that a South Carolina GOP incumbent, elected with 54 percent of the vote in 2004, who has raised $6 million and is running in a good year for Republicans, was quaking in his boots at the thought of taking on a former circuit-court judge who came out of retirement to be elected to the Charleston County Council? We’re expected to believe that Republicans have the developed the ability secretly to guide unknown Democrats to primary wins, and that they used it here instead of, say, helping Mickey Kaus shock Barbara Boxer in California?

Perhaps the simplest explanation of Greene’s victory comes from Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, one of the few organizations that polled the Democratic Senate primary beforehand. Jensen observed, “When we polled the South Carolina Senate race two weeks before the primary Rawl had only 4 percent favorable name recognition with Democrats in the state. We could make up just about any name and ask their favorability on a poll and get 4 percent, so that more or less amounts to zero name recognition. In a contest where both candidates have no name recognition somebody’s going to win and people’s votes are going to be based on pretty random, nonintellectual judgments.”

That would explain a close race, but Greene didn’t win close; he won by a margin of 58 percent to 41 percent. Could ballot order, and Alvin Greene’s name being first on the ballot, have proven decisive? John Sides, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University, sees some credibility to that idea. “I’m not sure that the potential ballot order effect is implausibly large,” he writes. “Assume for the moment that voters were essentially choosing at random between the candidates. That would imply a 5050 outcome. The actual outcome was 5841, which only implies that 8-9 percent of voters were influenced by ballot margin.”

Research by political scientists at the University of Vermont points to this: “Joanne Miller and Jon Krosnick’s first report on name order effects on election outcomes focused on 1992 state legislative elections in Ohio. . . . In these elections it was revealed that a candidate listed first on a ballot received, on average, two-and-half percent more of the vote than those listed after. Stronger effects were seen when the party affiliations were not listed, races were minimally publicized, or there was no incumbent running in the election.”

In a primary, party affiliation was moot, there was no incumbent, and this race appears to have defined the term “minimally publicized.”

Shortly after the election, Robert Ford, an African-American South Carolina state senator who ran for governor, offered the theory that voters could tell Greene was black by his last name: “No white folks have an ‘e’ on the end of Green. The blacks after they left the plantation couldn’t spell, and they threw an ‘e’ on the end.” This is an intriguing and possible theory, except that the world is full of people with the last name Greene who aren’t black (such as Florida Senate candidate Jeff Greene, author Graham Greene, and actress Michelle Greene) and plenty of African Americans with the last name “Green.”

Of course, “Al Green” is the name of a famous gospel and soul singer. Beyond that, the candidate probably was helped by the fact that he had an exceptionally common name, and thus many voters might mistake the name on the ballot for some other “Al Green” they know. How many guys in South Carolina are known to friends, neighbors, associates, and acquaintances as “Al Green” or “Al Greene”? According to public phone records, there are at least six residents named “Al Green,” five named “Albert Green,” three named “Alvin Green,” and four named “Alan Green.” How many voters saw the name and thought, “Oh, I know him?”

There’s an intriguing contrast between Greene’s absentee campaign and the tactics of his rival. In making the charge that something suspicious happened, Rawl campaign manager Walter Ludwig bragged, “We did do 220,000 robocalls (including one with Rep. John Spratt), and sent out about 250,000 e-mails in the five days before election.” For perspective, only about 170,000 people voted in the senatorial primary.

Are there any forms of campaigning less desired these days than unsolicited robocalls and e-mails? Is it possible that some of Rawl’s outreach methods proved irritating enough to drive some voters to support Greene, even if they knew nothing about him?

Greene’s fairy-tale mystery victory is one of the most joyfully refreshing developments in modern politics, because it subversively suggests that everything we think we know about campaigns, elections, and democracy itself might be completely wrong. The voters may ignore almost everything we have been conditioned to consider important metrics in modern campaigning. Greene managed a runaway victory without television or radio advertising, a website, voter contact lists, any identified campaign staff, any yard signs, any bumper stickers, any get-out-the-vote operations — hell, as far as anyone can tell, Greene has no discernable positions or platform! He’s got . . . a name, and a check for the filing fee.

The authorities will have to sort out the matter of Greene’s arrest on charges of disseminating, procuring, or promoting obscenity. If he is found guilty, this Chauncey Gardiner tale will be tainted by a dark twist. But even with that disturbing revelation about Greene’s character, his story shows that in our messy, flawed, and unpredictable system of democracy, sometimes the longest of long shots can win, even if he doesn’t deserve the victory.

There is a famous Woody Allen quote that “90 percent of life is just showing up.” Alvin Greene just proved that sometimes, you don’t even need to do that.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for NRO.

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