Decision 2018: A Mississippi US Senate Race Post-Mortem

The last Senate race has been decided, and Republicans now have a 53-47 majority in that chamber (for a net gain of two seats), thanks to a 54-46% victory (with 99% of the vote counted) in the Mississippi special election race. Now that this race is over (in the House, there is only one more race to be called in the Central Valley of California, which will determine whether Democrats gain 39 or 40 seats in that chamber), are there any lessons to be learned ?

(1) This race was NEVER in suspense – Despite what the pundit class in Washington DC believed (or wanted to believe), the primary results showed that the two Republican candidates (Cindy Hyde-Smith and Chris McDaniel) received a combined 58% of the primary vote. Donald Trump similarly carried with Mississippi with 58% of the vote two years ago. In other words, Mississippi has a relatively inelastic Republican base with a high Democratic “floor” but a low Democratic “ceiling.”

(2) Playing to the base is unwise when you have less than 50% of the vote – The Democratic candidate (Mike Espy) was actually a candidate with potential: though he (as a black candidate) was elected from a black majority district in the Mississippi Delta in 1986, he regularly sought white votes, and his district rewarded him with increasing re-election percentages in his next three races (he resigned in 1993 to become Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture). However, he had not served in elective office in Mississippi for a quarter of a century, so he had to start from scratch. And even with prior biracial appeal, his challenge this year was this: nearly all of the primary vote of the “also rans” came from a very conservative candidate named Chris McDaniel. Which meant that regardless of what the national media thought of Cindy Hyde-Smith’s blunders/alleged segregationist background, those items were not anathema to the McDaniel voters (or to many Mississippi voters, for that matter). So while working on turning out the Democratic base (which he did) is certainly a recommended strategy in a close race, the fact that 58% of primary voters voted Republican suggests that direct appeals to the McDaniel vote should have been made instead.

(3) Turnout changes benefited the Democrats – Whatever one thought of Mike Espy’s turnout efforts, they did bring the Democratic vote share up from 42 to 46% of the vote. To illustrate:

  • Counties that gave Donald Trump an absolute majority of the vote gave 66% of the primary vote to Hyde-Smith and McDaniel combined, then 63% to Hyde-Smith in the runoff/general election. In raw numbers, turnout in these counties dropped 8% (13% drop in Republican turnout compared to the primary, while Espy received the same vote in the runoff that he and another Democrat received in the primary);
  • Counties that gave Donald Trump less than an absolute majority of the vote voted 65% for Espy or another Democratic candidate in the primary and 69% in the runoff. In raw numbers, turnout in these counties only dropped 3% (compared to an 8% drop in the “Trump counties”). The combined Republican vote in these counties was 14% less in the runoff than it was in the primary, while Espy received 3% more votes in the runoff than he and another Democrat did combined in the primary;

(4) Polling special election races – curiously, no one wanted to (or chose to) poll this special election race. JMC (in conjunction with Bold Blue Strategies and RRH Elections) thought differently and polled this race, and came up with a 54-44% Hyde-Smith lead. Which in fact was nearly identical to the 54-46% Hyde-Smith win. So special election races (like any other race) can be polled, provided that the pollster/pollsters have sufficient domain knowledge of the area being polled to construct a sample that is truly representative of the those who will vote in any given election. That poll can be found here.