Primary Wins Are Not Predictive of General Election Success (Part II, the Democrats)

hillaryclinton20Obama, Kerry, and Bill Clinton all performed as well or better in the general election in states they lost during the primaries versus those they won

On Monday, Smart Politics provided data to counter a theme that continues to run through the media during the 2016 election cycle that Donald Trump, should he become his party’s nominee, is more likely to carry the states he is currently winning in the GOP primaries.

On the Democratic side, the media narrative on frontrunner Hillary Clinton has thus been the reverse – red flags were immediately raised in assessing Clinton’s chances at carrying key Midwestern and rust belt states after she was upset by Bernie Sanders in Michigan earlier this month.

So how have Democratic nominees fared in relation to the states they won and lost during the primaries in recent cycles?

Since 1976, Democratic presidential nominees have carried only a slightly higher rate of states they won in the primaries (38 percent) than those they lost (32 percent) with recent nominees Barack Obama, John Kerry, and Bill Clinton all doing as well or better in states they failed to win during the primary season.

Note: For this analysis the win-loss records in primaries vis-à-vis the general election for Democratic nominees were tracked for the 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2008 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).

Overall, Democratic nominees have lost 142 state primaries since 1976 but won 45 of them in the general election (31.7 percent). That is slightly less than the 38.3 percent rate at which they carried states they won during the primaries (102 of 266 states).

In recent cycles, Democratic nominees have seemingly not enjoyed any advantage in states where they racked up primary wins.

In 2008, for example, Barack Obama lost 21 states to Hillary Clinton, but carried 13 of them against John McCain (61.9 percent): California, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

Meanwhile, Obama claimed victory in 16 of the 30 states in which he had defeated Clinton (53.3 percent), not surprisingly losing a long list of deep red (or mildly purple) states: Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, and Wyoming.

In 2004, John Kerry did not lose many states en route to the nomination – coming up short in just five – but had no trouble faring as well in those (winning two, or 40.0 percent) as in the 46 he carried in the primaries (winning 18, or 39.1 percent).

In 1992, Bill Clinton lost 18 states during the primary season, but won 13 of them that November (72.2 percent): Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. [Note: Clinton lost the Minnesota caucuses to Harkin and the Washington caucuses to Tsongas but later won beauty pageant primaries in both states].

Clinton did not fare quite as well across the 33 states where he was victorious during the primaries, carrying 20 of them that November (60.6 percent) and losing 13: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming. [Clinton won the North Dakota caucuses in March with Ross Perot winning the beauty contest primary in June].

Two other Democratic nominees during this period under analysis were victorious at approximately the same rate in both groups of states:

  • Jimmy Carter, 1980: carried 14.3 percent of states he lost during the primaries (2 of 14) and 13.5 percent of those he won (5 of 37)
  • Walter Mondale, 1984: carried 3.1 percent of states he lost during the primaries (1 of 32) and 5.3 percent of those he won (1 of 19)

That leaves just two nominees since 1976 who performed notably better in states where they enjoyed success during the primaries:

  • Jimmy Carter, 1976: carried 57.1 percent of states he won during the primaries (12 of 21) and 40.0 percent of those he lost (12 of 30)
  • Michael Dukakis, 1988: carried 31.0 percent of states he won during the primaries (9 of 29) and 9.1 percent of those he lost (2 of 22)

Al Gore did not lose any primaries in 2000, so no comparison was possible that cycle.

Taken together with the fact that Republicans have won states they lost during the primaries at a six-point higher rate, in sum, primaries tell us little of what is going to happen in the general election.

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1 Comment on "Primary Wins Are Not Predictive of General Election Success (Part II, the Democrats)"

  1. 1. Spot on! Both Carter in 1976 and Dukakis in 1988 ought to have fared WAY better in the general; Carter similar to Wilson in 1912 or FDR in 1940, and Dukakis similar to Hughes in 1916 or Dewey in 1948. Each developed great momentum and/or endurance during the nominating phase; neither devised a masterful strategy that would clearly dominate the (main) opposition, the way that BHO had in his landmark ’08 victory.
    2. While the overall primary tallies indeed fail to “predict” the November results, sometimes glaring weak spots may serve as the (proverbial) canary in the coal mine; Carter’s loss to Kennedy in NE Ohio in 1980 turned out to be prescient in his later lopsided loss to Reagan, both in OH and nationally; ditto for the unimpressive showings of 53% in NH and 67% in SC by Bush “41” against a Sanders-esque challenger in 1992.

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