Mississippi has major elections every year, with no off years in between. And in all of these elections, votes matter more than any other factor.
Now, the premise that “votes matter” might seem to some too elementary to merit further thought. If so, thanks for giving me a few sentences worth of attention.
But if you’re still reading, consider the fact that when we see articles about the state of a political campaign, the topics are things like polling projections, fundraising results, personal popularity and attacks, policy disputes, and professional or political experience.
Meanwhile, we rarely see much written about what actual voters do in actual elections. A little walk down history lane shows that Lt. Governor Tate Reeves’s path to victory is much clearer than is Attorney General Jim Hood’s in this year’s race for the Governor’s Mansion. The very strong likelihood is that Tate Reeves will be our state’s next governor if overall voter turnout is moderate or high.
The charts that follow here show the results in eleven elections for governor in our state for the last forty years, from 1975 through 2015, the last year for which we know the final result. The data reflected on the charts have a powerful story to tell.
Vote totals for the two major party candidates for each gubernatorial election during the timeframe is demonstrated in Chart 1.
The facts graphically reflected here run counter to the conventional wisdom. Political observers love to repeat the old saw that higher turnout favors Democratic candidates in our state. But history shows otherwise.
Note that in the years in which voter turnout spiked upward, the Republican candidates did very well. In fact, not only have Republicans consistently won the high turnout elections, but the Republican candidate typically has won by a higher margin of votes in the years when turnout increased.
Among the challenges for Democratic nominees for governor reflected on this chart is the key fact that only three times in the past forty years have Democrats been able to muster at least 400,000 votes for their candidate. In fact, their highwater mark was in 1979, at 413,000 votes.
Since 1991, the only race for governor lost by the Republican nominee was in 1999. That loss cannot be attributed to high turnout, but to low turnout. Chart 1 shows clearly that the Democratic nominee was not the beneficiary of a surge of new voters that year. His total was below the 400,000-vote level that has been the best Democrats could muster for forty years.
The Republican loss in 1999 is attributable to the fact that it was the only election year since 1991 that the Republican nominee received fewer than 400,000 votes, and even then he came within 9,000 votes of winning that election. Had overall turnout been a little bit higher, 1999 would almost certainly have seen a Republican victory.
Not only are the numbers on a per-election basis challenging for Democrats, but isolating the Democratic results separately shows that the trendline for Democrats since 1975 is in free fall:
And even if we throw out Democratic results from 2007, 2011 and 2015, on the premise that those races were not sufficiently competitive to be instructive, the trendline for that party’s nominees is flat, hovering just below the 400,000-vote mark:
Contrast those numbers with the corresponding trendlines for Republican candidates during the same time periods.
If viewed in the context of the entire forty-year period, the trendline looks as though it was shot from a cannon, as Chart 4 reflects:
And even if adjusted by the removal of the noncompetitive races of 2007, 2011 and 2015, the trendline for Republican vote totals is still daunting:
The reality in this year’s governor’s race is that Lt. Governor Tate Reeves has history and the voting patterns of the people of Mississippi on his side.
This history does not mean that Reeves cannot lose or that Attorney General Jim Hood cannot win. Both are demonstrated vote-getters, and Hood has won all four of his statewide elections by large margins and with large vote totals, as has Reeves.
But the fact is that election results for gubernatorial races in our state’s recent history have demonstrated over and over again that the Democratic nominee has a chance to win if voter turnout is under 800,000, while he or she almost surely cannot win if voter turnout is over 800,000.
The only thing noteworthy about the calculus for Democrats in this year’s general election is that it marks the first time since 2003 that they have fielded a competitive nominee. But that fact, while interesting, does not change the numbers, and Jim Hood will lose if Reeves and Republicans can make this a high turnout election.
Andy Taggart is a Mississippi attorney in and also appointed the Co-Chairman of the Mississippi Department of Corrections Task Force on Contract Review and Procurement, to provide advice and recommendations for restoring public confidence and trust in the operations of state government in the wake of public corruption charges. Andy is also a gubernatorial appointee to the Mississippi Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee.