Skip to main content

Campaign Strategies Get Trickier When Runoff Elections Are Likely

An unusually large number of statewide primary candidates are expected to head into a runoff. For some campaigns, that likelihood has meant considering how their actions may impact a second round.

Vote signs outside of early voting locations in Austin on Feb. 23, 2014.

In the highest-profile races of Tuesday’s Texas primaries, a large number of candidates will be happy to come in second.

Several statewide contests are expected to end in runoffs, drawing out the races for an additional 12 weeks. For some candidates, that has made for a more nuanced approach to campaign strategy, particularly in the four-way Republican primary for lieutenant governor, where opponents have acknowledged that the incumbent, David Dewhurst, is likely to draw the most votes.

“With your help, we can keep Dewhurst under 50 percent and get closer to putting an authentic conservative in the lieutenant governor’s chair,” one candidate, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, wrote earlier this year on his campaign website.

Texas election law requires a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the votes. While runoffs are frequent in Texas, the high number of statewide races drawing multiple candidates this year is expected to lead to an unusually large second round after Tuesday.

On the Republican side, voters will probably be asked to return on May 27 to pick between the last two candidates standing for lieutenant governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, comptroller and railroad commissioner, as well as several local races. Among Democratic statewide races, runoffs are probable in the contests for agriculture commissioner and U.S. Senate.

Craig Murphy, a Republican consultant who has worked on Attorney General Greg Abbott’s campaign for governor, said that finding a winning strategy for a race that is expected to go to a runoff can be trickier than finding one for a contest that ends after one round.

"A race with two candidates is checkers," Murphy said. "A race with multiple candidates is chess."

One potential pitfall is to attack an opponent who is leading in the primary, only to see that strategy backfire in the runoff, said Philip Paolino, associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas.

“The danger is, if you’re too vicious in your attack, will you turn off some of the other candidates’ supporters?” Paolino said.

Two of the most expensive primary statewide races this year — the Republican contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general — offer a lesson in contrasts on runoff strategy.

Dewhurst is vying for re-election against three challengers: Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples. A poll of likely Republican voters conducted last month by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found Dewhurst leading his competitors with 37 percent, followed by Patrick with 31 percent. Staples and Patterson each drew less than 20 percent. 

Throughout the race, the challengers have attacked Dewhurst as an ineffective leader of the Texas Senate. Patrick has also drawn extensive criticism from his three opponents. Patterson went so far as to hire a private investigator, whose subsequent inquiry uncovered former employees who said that Patrick had knowingly hired them while they were in the United States illegally in the 1980s. Patrick has denied the claims.

It is a different story in the Republican primary for attorney general, where there is no incumbent. Though the candidates — state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas, state Sen. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Barry Smitherman, the chairman of the Railroad Commission — began attacking one another more forcefully this past week, they have largely focused on raising their own profiles.

Murphy said the attorney general candidates were being cautious because it was difficult to predict how an attack would play out in such a wide-open contest.

"In a multi-candidate race, it’s not a clean deal to simply attack another candidate because the votes may not go to you," Murphy said.

Along with worrying about hurting a candidate’s chances in a subsequent runoff, campaigns in multi-candidate races are also preoccupied with conveying to supporters and donors that their candidate is well positioned to make the second round.

Laurent Bouton, an assistant professor for economics at Georgetown University, who has studied voter behavior, said research suggested that as many as half of voters would consider changing their vote if they thought their candidate was unlikely to make it into a runoff.

"When candidates are not viable, when they don’t even have a chance to make it to the second round, we’ve found some voters will go to their second-most preferred candidate," Bouton said, citing preliminary results from his research.

In the primary races for U.S. Senate, John Cornyn, the Republican incumbent, and David Alameel, a Democrat, are vastly outspending their competitors. Yet the sheer number of candidates in each race — eight Republicans and five Democrats — could prevent any candidate from winning a majority.

Last month’s UT/Tribune poll found Cornyn leading his primary challengers with 62 percent. The poll predicted a runoff in the Democratic race between Alameel and Kesha Rogers, who is best-known for calling for President Obama’s impeachment for his “advancing the post-9/11 banker’s dictatorship initiated by his predecessor.” The Texas Democratic Party has argued that Rogers’ views do not reflect the party’s values and has taken the unusual step of opposing her candidacy.

Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant in Austin, said the Democratic candidates have struggled to differentiate themselves in a crowded field, which is why Rogers may perform well despite her controversial views. She has raised just $26,000.

Cornyn’s primary challengers are still hoping to force a runoff, with some candidates encouraging voters to support “anyone but Cornyn.” U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood, has drawn considerable attention largely for an unorthodox campaign strategy that has included declining most media requests and attending few public events.

While speaking last month to Michael Berry, a Houston-based conservative radio host, Stockman said his main goal was to see Cornyn unseated.

“I would think the first 100 people in the phone book would be better than what we currently have,” Stockman said. “And if I do not prevail and someone else does prevail in the runoff, Michael, you have my word, I will work just as hard for that person than anybody else.”

In the same interview, Stockman acknowledged that Cornyn may avoid a runoff and blamed that possible outcome on the challenge of fighting for voters’ attention against another crowded race on the ballot.

“By and large, there are more folks focusing on the lieutenant governor race, to be frank,” Stockman said. “It’s because you have four high-profile people spending millions of dollars versus one guy that’s entrenched and spending millions on his own.”

Disclosure: At the time of publication, the University of Texas at Austin was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. (You can also review the full list of Tribune donors and sponsors below $1,000.) 

Texans need truth. Help us report it.

Support independent Texas news

Become a member. Join today.

Donate now

Explore related story topics

2014 elections Dan Patrick David Dewhurst John Cornyn