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Does primary turnout in a district predict the November result?

Karl Rove would like you to think so.

At the House level, Democrats hope to win three districts won by Hillary Clinton and now held by Republican incumbents, as well as some of the six seats opened up by GOP retirements. Here again, the primary results are not heartening for Democrats.

In two Clinton-GOP congressional districts—the Seventh, in Houston, represented by Rep. John Culberson, and the 32nd, in Dallas, held by Rep. Pete Sessions—more Republicans voted than Democrats: 38,032 Republicans to 33,176 Democrats in the Seventh and 41,359 Republicans to 40,084 Democrats in the 32nd. Mrs. Clinton carried both districts by less than 2 percentage points in 2016.

Moreover, no Democrat won a majority in either district’s primary, forcing runoffs in May. In the Seventh, journalist Laura Moser —endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-connected “Our Revolution”—is pitted against Clinton loyalist and attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee targeted Ms. Moser with an opposition-research dump arguing she was too liberal to win in the fall. The attack backfired: Ms. Moser was trailing Ms. Fletcher in early voting before the DCCC assault but won more votes among those who turned out on election day.

Democrats outvoted Republicans in a GOP-held seat that Mrs. Clinton carried by 3.4 percentage points—the massive 23rd Congressional District, which sweeps across West Texas. This year, after Democratic candidates spent a combined $1.1 million, 44,320 voted in their primary to 30,951 Republicans. Still, that is 5,000 more Republicans than voted in the 2014 primary, which launched Will Hurd into Congress. A former undercover CIA officer, Rep. Hurd is one of the GOP’s most effective campaigners. His “DQ Townhalls” at Dairy Queens across his largely Hispanic district helped him hold the district by 1.3 points in 2016 even as Mr. Trump lost by more than 3 points.

Democratic aspirations to take some of the six open Republican congressional districts also appear slim: Republicans turned out more voters in all six, with the GOP’s margins ranging from roughly 16,000 to 22,000 votes.

If we’re talking about CD23, I can tell you that the Democratic candidates have received more votes than the Republican candidates in each primary since 2012, which includes one year that Pete Gallego won and two years that Will Hurd won. As such, I’m not sure how predictive that is.

More to the point, I am always suspicious when a data point is presented in a vacuum as being indicative of something. We’ve had primary elections before. How often is it the case that the party who collects the most primry votes in a given race goes on to win that race in November? Putting it another way, if one party draws fewer votes in the primary, does that mean they can’t win in November? Let’s step into the wayback machine and visit some primaries to the past to see.


CD17 - GOP            CD17 - Dem

McIntyre     10,681   Edwards      17,754
Snyder       11,568
Wohlgemuth   15,627

Total        37,876   Total        17,754

November result - Edwards 125,309  Wohlgemuth 116,049

HD134 - GOP           HD134 - Dem

Wong          4,927   Barclay         771
                      Daugherty     4,193

Total         4,927   Total         4,964

November result - Wong 36,021  Daugherty 29,806

HD137 - GOP           HD137 - Dem

Witt          1,291   Amadi           376
Zieben          970   Hochberg      1,012

Total         2,261   Total         1,388

November result - Hochberg 10,565  Witt 8,095

HD149 - GOP           HD149 - Dem

Heflin        2,526   Vo            1,800

November result - Vo 20,695  Heflin 20,662


HD47 - GOP            HD47 - Dem

Welch         2,349   Bolton        1,569
Four others   3,743   Three others  2,071

Total         6,092   Total         3,640

November result - Bolton 26,975  Welch 24,447

HD50 - GOP            HD50 - Dem

Fleece        1,441   Strama        2,466
Wheeler         294
Zimmerman     1,344

Total         3,079   Total         2,466

November result - Strama 25,098  Fleece 13,681

HD107 - GOP           HD107 - Dem

Keffer        3,054   Smith           724
                      Vaught        1,169

Total         3,054   Total         1,893

November result - Vaught 16,254  Keffer 15,145

HD134 - GOP           HD134 - Dem

Wong          3,725   Cohen         2,196

November result - Cohen 25,219  Wong 20,005


HD48 - GOP            HD48 - Dem

Neil          9,136   Howard        6,239

November result - Howard 25,023  Neil 25,011


SD10 - GOP            SD10 - GOP

Cooper        6,709   Davis        17,230
Shelton      28,249

Total        34,958   Total        17,230

November result - Davis 147,103  Shelton 140,656

HD144 - GOP           HD144 - Dem

Pena          1,030   Perez         1,149
Pineda        1,437   Risner          462
                      Ybarra          591

Total         2,467   Total         2,022

November result - Perez 12,446  Pineda 10,885


SD15 - GOP            SD15 - Dem

Hale         13,563   LaCroix       3,239
                      Whitmire      9,766

Total        13,563   Total        13,005

November result - Whitmire 74,192  Hale 48,249


HD107 GOP             HD107 - Dem

Sheets       10,371   Neave         6,317

November result - Neave 27,922  Sheets 27,086

Some points to note here. One, I’m cherry-picking just as Rove had done. There were plenty of examples of one party outvoting the other in a given primary race, then winning that race in November. That’s why I don’t have an example to cite from 2008, for instance. It’s also why I concentrated on the legislative races, since outside of CD23 there haven’t been many competitive Congressional races. Two, as you can see most of the examples are from last decade. That’s largely a function of how brutally efficient the 2011 gerrymander was. Three, these are actual votes cast, not turnout, as that data doesn’t exist on the SOS page and I was not going to trawl through multiple county election sites for this. It could be in some of the closer examples that adding in the undervotes would have flipped which party led the way.

All that out of the way, as you can see there are plenty of examples of parties trailing the primary votes but winning when it mattered. In some cases, the March tallies weren’t close, like with SD10 in 2012. In some other cases, it was the November races that weren’t close, like HD50 in 2006 and SD15 in 2014. The point I would make here is simply that this doesn’t look like a reliable metric to me. If you want to make the case that these Congressional races will be tough for Democrats to win regardless of the atmosphere and the demographic trends and the relative level of enthusiasm in the two parties, I’d agree. The weight of the evidence says that despite the positive indicators for 2018, we’re still underdogs in these districts. Our odds are better than they’ve been, but that doesn’t mean they’re great. I don’t think you need to use questionable statistics to make that case.

One more thing to consider: There was an effort, mostly driven by educators, to show up in the Republican primary and vote against Dan Patrick. It didn’t work in the sense that he won easily, but some 367K people did vote against him. I’m sure some number of those people are reliable Republicans, but some of them were likely new to the primary process. This probably had an effect on overall Republican turnout. A small effect, to be sure, but if it’s a little more than half of the anti-Patrick vote then we’re talking about 200K people. Take them out of the pool and the Republicans are back down at 2014 turnout levels.

I have no idea how much this effect might be. It’s certainly small, and I doubt you could measure it without some polling. But we know it’s there, and so it’s worth keeping in mind.

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  1. Manny Barrera says:

    March elections is like which friend do you like best, in November the enemy appears with an R in front, the ones that promote men to assault women, to hate anyone that is not white, to work with the Russians. In November true Americans will come out to vote against the Rs.

  2. asmith says:

    Karl doesn’t mention that in CD32 you have some significant overlap with SD8 (Richardson, Sachse, Wylie) where both GOP candidates spent 10 million combined and tv ads were saturating the Dallas market. Only Meier ran tv ads in 32.

    Dems have a good shot at picking up all three congressional targets, plus SD10 and SD16. Don’t think we will win CD21 or CD31 but the Dem performance will shock the chattering class.

  3. Thomas says:

    Looks like Hurd, Sessions and Culberson and just received the Karl Rove kiss of death.

    Seriously, few pundits are as consistently wrong as Rove.

  4. Bill Kelly says:

    Ellen Cohen won by 5,000 votes in 2006. DAMN!