From the Kentucky Board of Elections website, this is how the Danville City Commission election turned out on November 6, 2012:
|Ryan A. MONTGOMERY
|Norma Gail LOUIS
|James ‘J.H.’ ATKINS
Incumbents Kevin Caudill and J.H. Atkins were reelected while incumbents Ryan Montgomery and Norma Gail Louis were not. Caudill and Atkins will be joined by Paige Stevens and Paul Smiley (and Mayor Hunstad) in next year’s city commission.
First observation: this is in line with the results of our 2011 Exit Poll, which showed Caudill and Atkins with net positive approval ratings from Danville voters, while Montgomery and Louis had net negative approval ratings.
Second observation: our 2012 Exit Poll projections from earlier this afternoon turned out to be pretty darn accurate, correctly predicting all four winners even when only a third of the surveys were compiled.
We can look at these statistics to see the “what” of this election, while exit polls can help us understand the “why.” So what can we learn about why the Danville City Commission election turned out the way it did?
One popular explanation is that an election result where incumbents are involved can be interpreted as a “referendum.” In other words, incumbents are reelected when voters are pleased with their performance and not reelected when voters are displeased. We can assess this possibility by looking at the issues surveyed in our exit poll. We asked respondents a general approve/disapprove of the Commission’s handling of six specific issues:
- Water system expansion project: 54.7% approve, 20.8% disapprove, 24.5% don’t know/no opinion
- Hiring process/choice of Police Chief Tony Gray: 70.3% approve, 9.6% disapprove, 20% don’t know/no opinion
- Hiring process/choice of City Manager Ron Scott: 32.6% approve, 38.1% disapprove, 29.4% don’t know/no opinion
- Management of the city budget: 29.7% approve, 43.7% disapprove, 26.6% don’t know/no opinion
- Preparing for the VP debate: 77% approve, 6.4% disapprove, 16.7% don’t know/no opinion
- Purchase of the BISCO building: 27.1% approve, 43.9% disapprove, 29% don’t know/no opinion
Did opinions toward these issues affect overall opinions toward the Commission as a whole, and thus support a referendum election? Yes. And this would matter because it’s possible that disapproval of certain actions that the Commission majority has taken could be associated with a decreased likelihood of voting for the incumbent members of the majority (i.e. Montgomery and Louis). On the whole, only 30.9% of Danville respondents indicated approval of the City Commission while 43.1% indicated disapproval. So which issues are associated with commission disapproval?
Among those who disapprove of the Danville City Commission’s job performance:
- 64.3% approve of the work on the water system expansion
- 86.3% approve of the appointment of Tony Gray as police chief
- 90.6% approve of the city’s preparations for the VP debate
- 24% approve of the appointment of Ron Scott as city manager
- 17.8% approve of the management of the city budget
- 17.4% approve of the city’s handling of the BISCO building purchase
Thus, it seems that Danville voters judged the City Commission’s performance primarily on how it has handled the controversial issues (the city manager replacement and the BISCO building purchase). Since both Montgomery and Louis supported Mayor Hunstad on the city manager issue, and Montgomery has been associated strongly with the BISCO building purchase controversy in the week leading up to the election, it strongly suggests that the results of the election can best be interpreted as a referendum on these controversial issues.
We can further examine this explanation by comparing views on these controversial issues to voting for the various city commission members:
Among those who disapproved of the appointment of Ron Scott as city manager:
- 19.1% voted for Montgomery and 19.3% voted for Louis
- 72.2% voted for Atkins and 69.2% voted for Caudill
- 76.2% voted for Stevens, 54.7% voted for Hamner, and 37.7% voted for Smiley
Among those who disapproved of the handling of the BISCO building purchase:
- 18.5% voted for Montgomery and 25.5% voted for Louis
- 69.6% voted for Atkins and 64.8% voted for Caudill
- 75.3% voted for Stevens, 54.4% voted for Hamner, and 42.3% voted for Smiley
There is a very similar pattern for disapproval of handling of the city budget.
On the flip side, opinions toward the city’s handling of the water plant expansion as well as the appointment of Tony Gray as police chief have no strong relationship with voter choice for city commission members. (For example, among those who approve of the water plant expansion, 28.1% voted for Montgomery, and among those who disapprove of the water plant expansion, 28.0% voted for Montgomery. A similar pattern holds for the other Commission candidates.)
In sum, the poll results strongly suggest that the results of the Danville City Commission election can best be interpreted as a referendum on the controversial decisions that the majority of the commissioners made throughout 2011 and 2012 (specifically the on the city manager issue and the BISCO building purchase), despite the overall general public approval of more popular decisions such as the appointment of Tony Gray as police chief and the handling of the water plant expansion.