Louisiana Democratic Senate Primary
Party primaries can predict the future. Back in August 2010, a U.S. Senate primary in Louisiana attracted 110K Democrats and Independents (in that election, Independents were allowed to vote in the Democratic primary), and the results showed that Democrats and Independents were not solidly behind former Congressman Charlie Melancon (D-Napoleonville), who at the time was seeking to unseat Senator David Vitter (R-Metairie).
On the surface, the 71% of the primary vote that Melancon received was a reasonable primary victory, until you realize that (1) his opponents were essentially nuisance candidates, and (2) a detailed examination of precinct level data revealed weaknesses. That detailed data showed Melancon getting 81% of the black vote, 77% of the more liberal “white urban” vote (i.e., those living in the urban cores of Orleans and East Baton Rouge parishes), an anemic 66% of whites in his Congressional district, and 57% of whites living in the rest of the state. Keep in mind that these were nearly all Democrats passing judgment on Melancon.
This showing was especially unimpressive when you consider that U.S. Senate/U.S. House races were the only item on the August 2010 ballot, so those who showed up would almost certainly be party loyalists, and 29% of them voted for “none of the above.” We concluded at the time that in the general election, Melancon was in serious trouble, since “…his (Melancon’s) base is the “Obama coalition” of blacks and white liberals that enabled Obama to get 40% of the vote against John McCain in the 2008 Presidential election”
This, in fact, is what happened. Senator Vitter was re-elected with 57%, and Melancon’s 38% showing was the level of support only liberal Democrats get in statewide elections in Louisiana.
Democratic Presidential Primaries
Given that context, let’s fast forward to the 2012 Democratic Presidential primaries. What has largely escaped much notice is that only 16 states have offered or will offer (there are several remaining primaries on June 5 and 26) Democratic primary voters a choice, and in those few instances, President Obama has shown signs of weakness. Furthermore, his patterns of support in those 16 states neatly coincide with the patterns of support he is thought to have in his corner in a general election setting. Below is a graphical map showing those states where Obama had ballot competition:
Historically, sitting Presidents’ renomination contests are essentially a formality: elections analyst Sean Trende noted that “…only seven sitting presidents have ever received less than 60 percent of the vote in any primary” and that of this group, only one (Calvin Coolidge in 1924) was re-elected. Yet falling below that 60 percent threshold has happened four times now for President Obama (in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arkansas, and Kentucky). Each time this has happened, there has been a consistent pattern: Democratic primary voters in urbanized counties and/or counties where major universities are located showed near unanimous support for President Obama, while Democratic primary voters in suburbs and rural areas were much less enthusiastic about voting for Obama. There has also been another consistent pattern: President Obama gets a higher share of the vote in states where he had a named opponent, as opposed to primary contests where he was running against “Uncommitted.”
Below we have detailed Obama’s performance in those states where he has had competition. It’s also worth noting that in his weakest states, his performance was even more anemic once you got outside the urban areas and/or “college towns” in the states where he had serious competition.
|State||Obama % against “uncommitted”||Urban/ university counties||Suburban/ rural counties||% Dem primary|
|Massachusetts, Michigan||89%||N/A||N/A||28% Mass16% Mich|
|Tennessee, Maryland||88%||N/A||N/A||14% Tenn57% Md|
|State||Obama % against named opponent(s)||Urban/ university counties||Suburban/ rural counties||% Dem primary|
|Missouri, Texas||88%||N/A||N/A||22% Mo29% Texas|
There’s an additional factor in this analysis, since we saw this happen last night in Texas (President Obama got 88% of the vote): the Obama primary vote may be artificially inflated in areas where the Republican primaries brought out the bulk of the voters. In Texas, only 29% of primary voters chose to vote in the Democratic primary. Since the weakest Democratic showing there in recent memory was the 36% of the vote Walter Mondale received in 1984, it’s possible that had more Democrats voted in their primary, Obama’s share of the primary vote would have dropped. In fact, the only states in the listing above where the Democratic/Republican turnout (the column called “% Dem primary”) reasonably approximates the partisan breakdown were Louisiana, Maryland, and North Carolina.
It is true that Obama’s weakest (i.e., states where he got less than 60% of the vote) states are unlikely to be seriously in play in the November elections. Still, there are several things worth noting (just like what we foresaw in the 2010 Senate primary in Louisiana): (1) Party primaries typically attract only the most partisan individuals, and for a substantial number of them to go vote against their party’s president is a red flag (and has only happened a handful of times in history), (2) in states like New Hampshire and North Carolina, President Obama needs every Democratic vote he can get, and for 20% of them to vote against him in the primary can be costly in November, (3) we do not really know the full extent of Obama’s weaknesses, because only 16 states (with only a few of those being swing states) will give Democratic primary voters a chance to support or oppose their party’s President, and (4) we saw several instances where the percentage of those voting in a Republican primary exceeds what we think the partisan breakdown is in a state, thus inflating the Obama percentages.
In the next installment of this article, we will discuss the Presidential race as it stands right now, as well as a recap of recent primaries.