Monday, July 28, 2014

An Unusually High Number Of Undecided Voters in the 2014 Mississippi Senate Race Shouldn't Concern Thad Cochran

Photo courtesy of William Widmer of the New York TImes.

Bitter primary battles come and go. But one thing nearly all of these events have in common is that at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of the losing candidate's supporters wind up backing their nominee, regardless of who they voted for in the primary.

Don't get me wrong - there have been multiple polling examples of intra-party anger like we're seeing in Public Policy Polling's newest survey on the Mississippi Senate race. In each of those circumstances, however, the party largely came home to support their candidate in the general election.

Granted, the level of discontent found among Republicans in the newest Mississippi poll seems a bit unprecedented, at least when comparing their results to other post-close-primary polls from 2012, 2010, and the 2008 Presidential primaries. Cochran (R) leads Childers (D) overall by a 16 point margin, or 40-24%. The Democratic candidate actually finishes 3rd to undecided, which receives 31%.

Of the 31% of Mississippi voters that say they are undecided in the November Senate battle, the majority are Republicans and Independents, two groups that favor Cochran overwhelmingly in the survey. In fact, Republicans ALONE account for 51% of the total "undecided" vote. All of this has served to keep Thad Cochran a good distance from the magic number of 50% both in the general election, and with HIS OWN BASE. Yes, that's right. Cochran's only winning 48% of Republican poll respondents (his overall lead over Childers is thanks in large part to historic support from Democratic and black voters).


Now sure, there was lots of hoopla about Hillary Clinton Democrats voting for John McCain back during the 2008 presidential campaign. And yes, Obama's poll numbers among members of his own party suffered as the primary heated up and after it ended. Consider the table below, which points out Obama's support among Democrats in polls against John McCain taken just before and after the primary ended.

As you can see, Obama hit a low of 61% support from Democrats in a hypothetical match-up against John McCain, at least according to a YouGov/Economist poll taken shortly after Hillary Clinton's June 7th, 2008 campaign suspension, only to regain their support by November. But that's sill nothing compared to the mere plurality of support Thad Cochran enjoys from his own party in the PPP survey. Among the dozens of surveys taken in 2012 and 2010 Senate and gubernatorial primary races, not once could I locate a nominee whose support among their own party was as low as Thad Cochran's is per PPP.

For example, Senator Blanche Lincoln's (D-AR) support within her own party was just 68% against John Boozman (R), immediately following her contentious primary with Lt. Governor Bill Halter. She still managed to wrangle up 78% of Democrats to support her ultimately losing bid in the end, however.

Controversial Senate nominee in Delaware, Christine O'Donnell, regularly polled in the 60% range with Republicans against Democrat Chris Coons before and after her ultimately successful primary against Mike Castle. On election day, Republicans came home, to the tune of 81%.

Ken Buck's narrow 52-48% win over Jane Norton in the 2010 Republican Colorado Senate primary didn't appear to harm him with his base at all. His weakest showing with Republicans in any pre or post August 10th, 2010 primary poll was 76%, and he went on to win an impressive 89% that November.

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn (D), who experienced perhaps the most shocking upset of the night in 2010 when he defied all pre-election polling to win reelection, frequently saw his numbers with Democrats dip in the 50% range in matches against Republican Bill Brady. By November, Democrats seemed pretty wild about Gov. Quinn, giving him 85% of their vote against Brady.

Fresh off his primary win against famous Republican-turned-Democrat Senator Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak showed slight weakness with members of his own party, regularly polling around just 70% with this group. By the time the general election rolled around, a whopping 9 out of 10 Democrats had decided to stick with their party.

I think you're getting my point. Party nominees often face structural weakness within their own party during or after long, drawn out primary battles. But those voters almost always return home. The only problem for Thad Cochran is that his party seems particularly unwilling to kiss and make-up, at least compared to recent primary fall outs.


Like I mentioned earlier, an astounding 37% of Republicans remain undecided on the Cochran/Childers race (not to mention an unusually large amount of Democrats as well; 21% to be exact). What would PPP's results have looked like if undecided voters were reallocated based on their partisan identification? In other words, what if ALL undecided Republicans said they supported Cochran, ALL undecided Democrats said they supported Childers, and ALL undecided independents split as PPP already found them - 37% for Cochran, 18% for Childers, 6% for O'Hara? In such a scenario, Thad Cochran's lead jumps out to 25 points, or 58-33%.

Admittedly, the scenario illustrated above is unlikely to happen, being that Childers only leads among decided Democrats 46-31%, while Cochran only leads among decided Republicans 48-6%. But odds are fair that the overwhelming amount of undecided partisans will flock to their party. If that happens, all other PPP findings remaining the same, Cochran takes a substantial lead, as you can see in the table above.

Exploring another scenario, suppose all undecided Republicans in the PPP survey remain upset over perceived dirty tricks in the Cochran/McDaniel runoff, and split their vote about half-and-half between Democrat Travis Childers, and Libertarian Shawn O'Hara. Meanwhile, suppose all of the undecided Democrats come home to Childers, while undecided independents continue to remain split 37/18/6% for Cochran. Even under such a rosy and unlikely scenario for Childers, he continues to trail Thad Cochran 43-41%, while third party candidate O'Hara surges to 14%.

And what happens when you just give it all to Childers - that is, reallocate all the undecided Republicans and Democrats to the Childers column, while undecided Independents split the way PPP originally found decided Independents - well then, the Democrat finally takes a notable lead. See below:

And just in case you weren't convinced yet of how tough it is going to be for Childers to win in the fall, consider that he would have to have won 95% of Democrats in the PPP poll (a far cry from the 46% he actually attracts), as well as 57% of Independents, just to hit 50% of the overall vote. On the other hand, Thad Cochran would have needed just 72% of Republicans to support his bid in order to reach 50% (48% actually said they do).

What is the likelihood that Thad Cochran and Travis Childers actually reach these goals? What are the odds that McDaniel supporters truly revolt? Is Thad Cochran actually going to win 31% of the Democratic vote.

Considering recent Mississippi elections,  the answers to these questions is slim and no, respectively. Consider the table below, which documents the Republican and Democratic vote in statewide Mississippi elections since 1992 (based on available statewide exit polling data):

As you can see, with the exception of the 1996 senate race, no Democratic nominee for Senate, Governor, or President in Mississippi has won less than 78% of Democratic voters. At the same time, no Republican has exceeded 19% with Democrats. So it's very, very unlikely that Travis Childers will not exceed his current level of support from his own party (46%). Even James Hunt won 54% of Democrats, despite winning just 27% statewide in 1996. Likewise, it is very, very unlikely that Thad Cochran will not exceed his current level of support from his own party (48%). No Republican has won less than 85% Republican voters since at least 1992. It is also unlikely that Cochran will carry 31% of Democrats, as PPP found. That has only occurred once since 1992, and again, it was a major GOP landslide election.

In conclusion, it would seem the PPP poll of the 2014 Mississippi Senate race contains more insight than a survey with one-third of respondents undecided typically would. We know, thanks to past election results and some simple math, that in all likelihood, the Republicans already substantial advantage over Democrats is likely to grow. Angry supporters of primary opponents almost always come home. And Republicans almost always support their nominee to the tune of at least 85%. Whether Thad Cochran's unusual level of support among Democrats holds or not (history suggests it won't), he's still well positioned to win.

UPDATE: An even newer survey from YouGov/NY Times finds Cochran with a similar 47-33% lead over Travis Childers, with 23% of Republicans remaining undecided.

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