Decision 2018: Applying the “Hillary Clinton test” to election results

Four more states (Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Idaho, and Oregon) held their primaries last night. And in each case, there was evidence of either increased Democratic or reduced Republican enthusiasm relative to previous midterm elections. Although if we’re using these turnout figures to predict midterm election results on a state by state basis, the “Hillary Clinton test” (i.e, “what difference…does it make?”) must be applied, because just like in the Texas primary, a Democratic surge may or may not matter in individual contests if the electorate is either strongly Democratic or Republican.

Since “primary night” was four separate state contests, JMC will separately analyze each state’s primary results below:

Pennsylvania: Republicans had a vigorously contested Governor’s race, and a recent court ruling invalidating its existing U.S. House district lines scrambled all of Congressional races. First, the Governor’s race. GOP turnout at the top of the ticket was 14% less than it was in the 2010 primaries (there were no contested GOP Senate/gubernatorial primaries in 2014). This drop-off should concern Republicans, given that Republicans need every ounce of enthusiasm to hold onto five crucial marginal Congressional seats.

For the Congressional primaries, there were no incumbent upsets, although one (Lloyd Smucker) was held to a less than overwhelming 59% of the vote. On a similar note, Republican Rick Saccone attempted to avenge his special election loss to Democrat Conor Lamb by running in another, more Republican district, yet he couldn’t even win his own primary: he was defeated 55-45% by an opponent who used Donald Trump’s words (“Saccone is a weak candidate”) against him in a radio ad.

Nebraska: Both parties had contested primaries for Governor and US Senate. While the primary results weren’t particularly surprising, turnout patterns were, although this is a case where the “Hillary Clinton test” is partially applicable.

65% of primary voters voted in the Republican primary, which is pretty impressive until you realize that (1) 70% voted Republican in the 2010 primaries, (2) 77% voted Republican in the 2014 primaries, and (3) Democratic turnout increased 36% while Republican turnout decreased 24% relative to the 2014 primaries. Does this turnout surge matter? In one place, it does. The politically marginal 2nd Congressional district (Omaha and its suburbs) narrowly defeated its Democratic incumbent in 2016 in a district that only supported Trump 47-45%. And in last night’s balloting, an estimated 51% of voters voted in the Democratic primary. So heightened Democratic enthusiasm in Nebraska does matter here, although in an earlier publicly released statewide poll, JMC discovered that its statewide Republican incumbents can’t take their re-election for granted.

Idaho: Both parties had contested primaries for Governor. This was another “Democratic surge” state, although the “Hillary Clinton test” is very much applicable here.

In this state, 75% of primary voters voted in the Republican primary, which is pretty impressive until you realize that (1) 86% voted Republican both in the 2010 and 2014 primaries, and (2) Democratic turnout increased 160%, while Republican turnout increased 23% relative to the 2014 primaries. But given the state’s Republican complexion, not much impact is expected from this “surge” in either Congressional or statewide races on the ballot this fall.

 Oregon: On the surface, Oregon would seem to be forbidding territory for Republicans: the last time a Republican was elected Governor was in 1982, and the last Republican to carry Oregon’s electoral votes was Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide re-election. However, it is more correct to say that this is a state with a split personality politically: overwhelmingly Democratic Portland (whose personality has been satirized in Portlandia) is only partially counterbalanced by politically marginal suburbs and Republican leaning areas outside of the Portland orbit. 

(UPDATED 5/16 PM) Oregon is also unique in that it is one of a handful of states to conduct its elections entirely through mail-in ballots. So from the information that has been reported so far (all but about 18K primary ballots have been counted), 55% voted in the Democratic primary. This is curiously similar to the 54% who voted Democratic in the 2010 primary and the 52% who voted Democratic in the 2014 primary. And while turnout showed a Democratic uptick, it was a more muted uptick than in other states: 24% more voted in the Democratic primary than in 2014, while Republican turnout was up 7%. It’s also worth noting, however, that Oregonians pride themselves on their very high voter turnout (in the 2016 Presidential election, voter turnout was 80%, while it was 71% in the 2014 midterm elections). Still, the “Hillary Clinton” test applies here: Democrats have controlled the Governor’s chair since 1987, both US Senate seats since 2009, and all but one of its US House seats, so Democrats have reached saturation point here.


So while Democrats saw increases in turnout, those increases may or may not matter, depending on which state’s political climate is part of the discussion. Primary season “goes South” next Tuesday to Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky. Georgia will be particularly interesting to watch, given that both states have contested primaries for Governor. Given how Democrats have become more competitive in the last three Presidential contests, the level of primary partisan enthusiasm in a state without party registration will be interesting to watch.

Nothing has occurred on Congressional filing this past week: it’s still at 35 states seeing an end to its Congressional qualifying (filing for fall races in Louisiana is July 18-20). 99% of 212 Republicans have Democratic opposition, while 80% of 154 Democratic held seats have Republican opposition.