Primary Wins Are Not Predictive of General Election Success: Part I, the Republicans

Since 1976, GOP nominees have been victorious at a greater rate in states they lost during the primary season than in those they won

donaldtrump20One crutch frequently used by the media during its marathon coverage of the 2016 primary elections is to take the giant step that Democratic or Republican candidates can translate success in the primaries and caucuses into winning those same states in the general election.

Donald Trump, for example, has already won states that are traditionally blue in the general election, such as Michigan and Illinois.

As a result, Trump has been credited for his ability to put Midwestern and “rust belt” states in play this November should he win the GOP nomination:

Michigan Shows Trump Could Redraw Electoral Map vs. Clinton” – National Review

Can Donald Trump Rewrite The Electoral Map For The GOP?” – NPR

Trump poses Rust Belt threat, Democrats worry” – POLITICO

But is this necessarily so?

Putting aside the fact that Trump – or any other GOP candidate – has yet to win any state with 50 percent of the vote, and that some Republican candidate has to win each contest, is there any evidence to suggest that nominees fare better in states where they won during the primaries?

In a word – no.

Smart Politics examined the last eight presidential election cycles since 1976 with contested races for the GOP nomination and found that nominees had a stronger winning percentage in November in states they lost during the primaries (59 percent) than in states they had won (53 percent).

Note: For this analysis the win-loss records in primaries vis-à-vis the general election for Republican nominees were tracked for the 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, and 2012 cycles. “Primary” victories are defined as the winner of a primary or caucus (or a party convention vote if neither were held) in the 50 states and District of Columbia. (D.C. is grouped, for ease of discussion, as a ‘state’ below).

Since 1976, Republican nominees lost 83 states during the primary season across these eight cycles but during the general election they still carried 49 of them, or 59.0 percent.

Meanwhile, these nominees carried only 53.5 percent of the states they won in the primaries – 174 of 325 states.

In other words, there has been no positive correlation in the modern primary era between general election victories among Republican nominees and the states in which they found success en route to the nomination.

[Note: George H.W. Bush did not lose a single primary to Pat Buchanan in 1992 (who contested the president throughout the primary season), but lost 33 states in the general election. Even if one removes this cycle from the data above, GOP nominees still fare slightly worse in November across the states they won in the primaries – winning 155 of 274 states, or 56.6 percent].

In 1976, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan engaged in a fierce nomination battle, in which the incumbent president claimed victories in 28 states (including Washington, D.C.) while the former California governor did so in 23.

However, that November, Ford won 15 of the 23 states he had lost to Reagan (65.2 percent): Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Ford only carried 12 of the 28 states in which he had defeated Reagan earlier that year (42.9 percent), losing Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Four years later, Reagan fared just as well in states he lost earlier in the year to George H.W. Bush (winning six of seven states, or 85.7 percent) as he did in the states where he was victorious (winning 38 of 44 states, or 86.4 percent).

Bush was the victor in primaries and caucuses in Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Pennsylvania but Reagan swept all six against Jimmy Carter. (The only place Bush won that Reagan lost was Washington, D.C. – where no GOP nominee has been victorious in a general election).

In more recent election cycles, John McCain and Mitt Romney have also had more success in the states they lost in the primaries than in the ones they won. This is due in part to these more moderate candidates generally thriving in blue and purple state primaries, but facing difficulties from more conservative challengers in deep red states, particularly in the South.

As a result, McCain lost 19 states during the 2008 primary season but was able to win 12 of them against Barack Obama that fall as the nominee (63.2 percent): Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

McCain won seven of the eight states he lost to Mike Huckabee (all but Iowa) and five of the 11 states he lost to Romney (all but Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, and Nevada).

Meanwhile, the Arizona U.S. Senator carried just 10 of the 32 states that he won in the primaries (31.3 percent), losing almost every blue and purple state: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

In 2012, Romney defeated Obama in 10 of 13 states he lost during the primaries (76.9 percent): Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

That is more than twice the rate of victory the Massachusetts governor enjoyed in November across the states where he notched first place primary finishes – 14 of 38 states (36.8 percent).

Romney nearly ran the table in blue and purple state primaries but lost 24 of them against Obama: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin.

There have been a few nominees who fared better in states they won in the primaries than in those where they lost:

  • George H.W. Bush, 1988: carried 83.7 percent states of states he won during the primaries (36 of 43) and 50.0 percent of those he lost (four of eight)
  • Bob Dole, 1996: carried 40.0 percent of states he won during the primaries (18 of 45) and 16.7 percent of those he lost (one of six)
  • George W. Bush, 2000: carried 63.6 percent of state he won during the primaries (28 of 44) and 14.3 percent of states he lost (one of seven)

Overall, during most of these cycles under analysis almost all of the nominees faced at least one major challenger throughout most of the primary season: Ronald Reagan in 1976 (ran until the convention), George H.W. Bush in 1980 (exited in late May), Pat Robertson in 1988 (exited in early April with 15 contests left), Pat Buchanan in 1992 (convention) and 1996 (convention), and Newt Gingrich in 2012 (exited in early May with 14 contests left).

Longer-shot GOP candidates Alan Keyes (2000) and Ron Paul (2008, 2012) also did not suspend their campaigns during the primary season for those cycles.

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And so, is there any reason to believe Trump’s candidacy will be different in 2016? Should we expect victories in Michigan and Illinois in the winter to propel him to upset victories in the fall?

The argument being made is that Trump is bringing new (white) voters into the fold, and thus could shake up the electorate in November. If he does so, and doesn’t shed a similar amount of (female independent and GOP-leaning) voters to the Democrats in turn, this could theoretically produce unexpected results in Midwestern states that have typically gone Democratic in recent cycles.

Until that actually happens, however, there is little evidence in the electoral record to suggest a strong showing in a party primary (or, in the case of Trump, plurality wins) has any relationship to the general election vote in that state.

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3 Comments on "Primary Wins Are Not Predictive of General Election Success: Part I, the Republicans"

  1. The media – specifically the 24/7 Cable News Complex – have a vested self-interest in playing up (interparty) competition, as well as (intraparty) conflict, empirical indicators or no. Also, if a nominee were to perform well in November only in the (“51”) states where s/he had performed well during the nominating phase, such nominee – and the party that is titularly led by her/him – is by definition a NICHE thing, or so it seems!

  2. Brent Rosencrans | March 31, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Reply

    This article, which was penned on March 21, states that no Republican had as of yet, one a majority in any state. However, Ted Cruz won nearly 70% in the Wyoming contest on March 12.

    • Eric Ostermeier | March 31, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Reply

      Wyoming is excluded because a) it was one of three states without a presidential preference vote and b) the March 12th convention to which you refer only selected a minority of the state’s delegates (12) – an additional 14 at-large delegates will be selected at the state convention in April.

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