Beware of Delaware: Why the Republican Senate Primary is Significant

In my last post I noted the historically high turnout (at least since 1990) – close to 32% of registered Republicans- in the Delaware Republican primary Senate race that was won by the Tea Party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell.  She beat the favored Congressman Mike Castle by a decisive 53.1% to 46.5% margin. While acknowledging that O’Donnell faced an uphill battle in the general election, I suggested that the high turnout was still another indication that the Tea Party had successfully tapped into voter anger during the current electoral cycle – anger that did not bode well for Democrats in the midterm elections.

In response, a political science colleague sends me the following turnout data that puts O’Donnell’s support in a slightly different perspective:

The 2010 Republican Delaware Senate Primary

Age-eligible population: 682,000
Registered Voters: 621,700   (91% of age-eligible population)
Republican Registration: 182,800   (29% of registered voters)
Republican Primary Vote:  57,580    (31% of registered Republicans)
O’Connell Vote: 30,561    (5% of registered voters)

The take home point is that O’Donnell’s victory is due to the votes of about 5% of Delaware’s registered electorate. It’s a useful reminder that we should not overstate O’Donnell’s – or the Tea Party’s – overall level of support among all voters.   And it drives home two points that I’ve made before. First, the current high level of partisan polarization in Congress is not the product of a polarized electorate as much as it is due to moderate voters having to choose between more ideologically extreme primary winners. Unless Castle runs an independent campaign, much like Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is doing in Alaska after her defeat in the primary there, Delaware voters who wish to cast a protest vote in the general election against the party in power must do so by voting for O’Donnell – even if they don’t agree with all her policies.  The alternative is not to vote at all.  Now, I am not suggesting that O’Donnell will win the Delaware Senate race in November (although I confess to having no first-hand knowledge of Delaware political dynamics).  But to the extent that the Delaware Senate race becomes a referendum on Obama and the Democrats, she will be the beneficiary – even if moderate protest voters don’t necessarily share her views.  Note also that O’Donnell is frantically backing away from her most controversial past statements in an effort to portray herself as a more centrist candidate. We will know come November whether she is successful, but most pundits don’t think much of her chances.

My second point is that even during “wave” elections, such as the Republican takeover in 1994, most voters’ underlying partisan preferences and voting habits don’t shift from one party to the other.  Remember that in the more competitive Senate races, since 1982 incumbent senators have nonetheless won reelection at about an 83% clip.  (The House rate is even higher.)  In this election cycle there may be 10 Senate races that will truly be competitive.  However, in competitive races, a small shift in underlying voter sentiment is often enough to swing a race one way or the other.  And, in the aggregate, a shift in a few percentage points in voters’ support for either party can be enough to produce a change in congressional control. For example, the Democratic takeover in the 2006 midterms reflected only a 4% Democrat gain in the aggregate national vote.   This small shift in voter sentiment was enough to end the Republican majority.

In short, changes in the partisan makeover within Congress often are driven by a change in voting habits of only a small sliver of the electorate. A movement that has the support of only about 20% of voters, as most  polls suggest is the case with the Tea Party, can nonetheless play a significant role in congressional elections, particularly if the 20% is more motivated to vote. The significance of O’Donnell’s win, then, has less to do with her chances of winning the Senate seat in Delaware, and more, I think, with what the turnout in her primary victory says about the national mood, and the relative chances of Republicans and Democrats come November.


  1. When saying the Tea Party has support from 20 percent of the nation, that seems unrealistically high.

    According to the data above, in Delaware, all Republicans only make up 29 percent of registered voters. And of those, the Tea Party’s vote here was 5 percent (O’Donnell’s percentage of the vote), not 20 percent. Is it right to suggest that 20 percent of all voters will cast out reason and embrace anarchy? Note also that while polls show Democrats with approval ratings in the low 30s, Republicans fare even worse with approval ratings in the 20s. It’s not likely that moderate Republicans or independents will side with anarchists who love to rant but offer no solutions.

    While the public is angry, much of that anger is misplaced. The challenge Dems face is to direct that anger to ideas that have some hope of solving the problem and point out the hypocrisy of their own rhetoric — ie., reduce the deficit but extend all tax cuts. If the Tea Party offers no solutions more realistic than today’s rhetoric and even conservative Republicans are shying away from candidates like O’Donnell, is the assumption correct that they’ll vote to sabotage their party and the nation by electing candidates even Karl Rove says are unfit to run?

    No doubt mid-term elections historically favor the party out of power, but this current wave of anger is more misdirected than any I’ve seen in 40 years. Because of that, the opportunity for a correction in public opinion the closer we get to the election (as more people become tuned in to what the Tea Party is advocating as policy and the whacky consequences that could occur if they obtain any political power) the more active opponents will become and the more cautious moderates and conservatives will be when casting their votes.

    Caveat: I hope that’s not a moderate (me) rationalizing the current political mood; I hope as a nation we have not drifted that far beyond the realm of reason.

  2. Excellent. I was starting to think that you were getting a little too enamored with the perceived strength of the Tea Party. This makes sense. Turn out in primaries is always low. Probably even lower in a non-presidential election year. Thus a small group of committed activists can have a huge impact on the course of the primaries. This does not however, translate into power in the general election, where the median voter is key.

    I agree with your argument that the middle 20% of voters swing even “wave” elections, so the next question is whether we know to what extent the 20-30% of the electorate that is Tea Party overlaps with the moderate middle 20% of voters that are the kingmakers? To me, they are not the moderates and independents that swing elections (although Dems have big problems there as well). They are the hardened GOP base in the guise of a grass roots movement.

    While I agree that the Tea Party is a force to be reckoned with and will not go away soon, I am not convinced that it is a moderate broad-based coalition capable of controlling the outcomes of general elections. Moreover, I think this is an instance where the media narrative was correct that they have potentially killed the GOP’s already slim chances for taking the senate. Nominees in Nevada and Delaware are so extreme that it is hard to see them winning unless the electorate is so angry that they will embrace any outsider, no matter how crazy they are. I also don’t think the purification campaign by the Tea Party will help the GOP be the moderate broad-based umbrella party that they must be to be nationally competitive in the future. Given the economy and a midterm election year, the Dems were bound to lose seats this year. However, I think it is a mistake to view GOP gains this year as a indicator of the growing national strength of a conservative grass roots movement. To me, the alternative hypothesis that this movement of hard core activists hurts the GOPs long-term competitiveness is equally plausible.

  3. Angelo,

    My guesstimate of the Tea Party support among the general public (not just Delaware voters) is based on polling data. A good summary of it can be found at this site: (go to the Tea Party link). Note that the level of “support” varies depending on whether the survey asks whether one agrees with the Tea Party “on the issues” – here support is around 34%, or whether one asks respondents if they consider themselves a supporter of the Tea Party movement – here the numbers drop to 28% or so, depending on the poll. If voters are asked to choose which group among several listed (Democrats, Republicans, Green, Tea Party, etc.) best represents their views, the Tea Party pulls down maybe 15%. So “support” varies depending on question wording as well as the sample, but 20% support nationwide, plus or minus 5%, is probably a fair estimate right now. Keep in mind that the 5% support for O’Donnell does not mean she was opposed by 95% of Delaware voters – independents and Democrats couldn’t vote in the Republican primary.

    Whether that 20% Tea Party support in surveys (give or take) will translate to an equal level of support at the polls is another matter. As you note, there is still a substantial portion of the electorate – 17% in one recent poll – that claim to know nothing at all about the Tea Party movement, and another 24% that knows only a little, although these numbers have dropped since April. Still, it leaves open the possibility that, as you say, the Tea Party movement may lose support as more people start paying attention to it, and to the choices in the upcoming election. Much will depend, I think, on who turns out, what candidate choices they face and whether this election turns more on a referendum on the party in power or as a choice between two candidates.

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