History Shows Runoffs Difficult to Predict

Debra Medina’s giving Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison good reason to make sure they don’t have plans on the second Tuesday of April.

The latest Rasmussen Reports numbers have Medina at 12%, Perry at 43%, and Hutchison at 33%. If Perry fails to get a majority of the vote in the primary — what current projections show happening — a runoff would occur between the top two finishers on April 13.

A look at historical election returns reveals what could be a boon to Hutchison: incumbents like Perry have bad luck in runoff contests. But University of Texas government professor David Prindle said there’s no real pattern as to how runoffs treat incumbent candidates, “It depends on how the supporters of the people who aren't in the runoff — who did vote in the primary and are going to vote in the runoff — break,” he says.

Republican political consultant Allen Blakemore would also have you wait before taking to the political futures market and wagering on a runoff win for Hutchison.

“Primaries are a small, by-invitation-only party,” Blakemore said, adding that in a runoff, “The voters will be much more conservative, and much more inside baseball players.”

 

Texas law allows anyone who hasn’t voted in another party’s primary to vote in the runoff, but that doesn't mean all those people will actually show up. Blakemore thinks they'll be pure Republicans.

“To the extent that you can say anybody who votes in a Republican primary is a casual voter, which you can't, the casual ones will be gone,” Blakemore said, indicating that such a scenario favors Perry.

Hutchison is no stranger to the mechanics of runoffs. That’s how she got her Senate seat in 1993. Hutchison emerged from a 24-candidate field in a virtual tie with Democrat Robert Krueger. In the runoff, Hutchison trounced Krueger, grabbing almost 70% of the vote.

And a trend that’s unfriendly to incumbents does emerge in the results of runoff elections since 1992. Brazoria County Republican Greg Laughlin, who lost his U.S. House seat to Ron Paul in 1996, and San Antonio Republican Henry Bonilla, who lost his congressional seat to Ciro Rodriguez in a special election runoff in 2006, were both incumbent causalities of runoffs like Krueger, who ever-so-briefly served as an appointee in the Senate before his loss to Hutchison.

Laughlin won his primary with 42% of the vote, with Paul ten points behind at 32%, only to lose in the runoff to Paul by nearly the same margin. When Bonilla came just one point shy of a majority of the vote in 2006's Supreme Court mandated special election, he faced Rodriguez, the next closest finisher at 20%, in a runoff. Rodriguez won the runoff by ten points.

Texas hasn't seen a gubernatorial primary runoff since 1990, and that one didn’t involve an incumbent. In that race, then-Treasurer Ann Richards and then-Attorney General Jim Mattox battled for the Democratic nomination. The third candidate in the 1990 Democratic primary, former Gov. Mark White, earned 19% of the vote, putting Richards and Mattox, who were within two points of each other, back on the campaign trail for another month. Richards, who had finished first in the primary, won the runoff election with 57% of the vote.

Historical election returns aside, anyone hoping to predict a runoff performance still has to consider just whose tank of votes Debra Medina is siphoning from.

For his money, Blakemore says that’s Hutchison. “Medina’s candidacy is against the status-quo,” he said, “She would say that she's so far against the status-quo that both Perry and Hutchison are unacceptable. But if you are unhappy with the status quo, and your only two votes are Perry and Hutchison, then your votes are going to Hutchison.”

If that’s true, then Medina could gain enough votes to keep Hutchison from challenging Perry in a runoff at all. But if polling numbers continue on the same course, Medina and Hutchison combined could keep Perry from reaching a majority of the vote, triggering a runoff. According to Blakemore, that would only “extend the campaign, cost a bunch of money, and delay the inevitable,”—Perry’s victory.

Does that mean Democratic candidate Bill White was the real winner of last week’s GOP debate?

It’s possible. Democratic consultant Jason Stanford said a Republican runoff would be “Christmas come early” for the former Houston mayor because it would force both Republicans to keep spending campaign cash and further embitter their supporters, who might not want back in the tent if their preferred candidate loses.

“A runoff will cement the divide we’re seeing right now, not only on Rick Perry’s left, where he is trying to kick Kay Bailey voters out of the party, but also on the right,” he said, and assuming Perry wins, “It would also shrink the calendar for Rick Perry as far as repairing that divide.”

 

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