Go to HHH home page.
Smart Politics
 


Massachusetts U.S. Senate Race: Special Elections Frequently See Flip in Voter Preferences

Bookmark and Share

More than half of U.S. Senate special elections since 1970 have resulted in a partisan flipping of voter preferences

The special election for Massachusetts' U.S. Senate seat is garnering significant national attention for what is perceived as a surprising degree of competitiveness. Massachusetts, one of the most Democratic-friendly states in the country, has not elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Edward Brooke in 1972.

Most polls show the matchup between Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and Republican state Senator Scott Brown a dead heat with Brown surging.

Many Democratic loyalists are explaining away the highly competitive race as a result of poor campaigning by Coakley.

Republicans, meanwhile, see the Senate race as an extension of the national momentum the GOP is experiencing across the country; as evidenced last November when the Party picked up two gubernatorial seats - in Virginia and New Jersey.

However, a Smart Politics historical analysis finds that turnover in special election contests is actually quite common. In fact, since 1970, there has been more turnover than not - with voters changing their partisan preference at the ballot from the last time the Senate seat in question was up for election in 13 of 20 races.

In most of these states, appointments have been made to temporarily fill the U.S. Senate seat in the interim - and frequently such appointees have gone on to win the special election. Since the first popular vote special election in 1914, 22 appointees have won the special election contest.

However, in the case of Massachusetts, the appointee, Democrat Paul Kirk, is not on the ballot.

Overall, the partisan flip-flopping in U.S. Senate special election contests among the electorate has been on the rise, with 65.0 percent of seats flipping since 1970, 48.8 percent flipping since 1942, and 36.2 percent flipping since 1914.

Seven of these 13 partisan shifts in special elections since 1970 have been from Democrats to Republicans (Alaska in 1970, Minnesota in 1978, Washington in 1983, Texas in 1993, Tennessee in 1994, Oklahoma in 1994, and Missouri in 2002), with six from Republicans to Democrats (Illinois in 1970, New Hampshire in 1975, Pennsylvania in 1991, California in 1992, Oregon in 1996, and Georgia in 2000).

(Note: a partisan shift or 'flip' is defined here as a change among the electorate from the last time the Senate seat was on the ballot. Such a flip is not necessarily synonymous with a 'pick-up' in the Senate Chamber, however, as such changes sometimes already occurred after gubernatorial appointments changed the seat from one party to another, with the appointee incumbent then going on to win the special election (e.g. Georgia 2000, Pennsylvania 1991, Washington 1983, Alaska 1970)).

The tightness of the Massachusetts race is also not surprising in light of the fact that special elections have been much more competitive than regular U.S. Senate contests in recent years.

A Smart Politics analysis of the fourteen U.S. Senate special elections since 1990 finds the average margin of victory was 16.7 points, whereas the margin of victory in those fourteen states for full-term U.S. Senate seats was 26.4 points.

Even when pick-ups have not occurred, special elections over the past two decades have resulted in some competitive races for both Democrats in heavily Republican states and vice-versa.

For example, in the heavily Republican state of Kansas, the average margin of victory for full-term U.S. Senate races has been 39.8 points since 1990. However, the 1996 special election race between Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Jill Docking was decided by only 10.6 points.

And in Mississippi's 2008 special election, Republican Roger Wicker defeated Ronnie Musgrove by 9.9 points. Republicans had trounced Democrats in full-term U.S. Senate contests by an average of 48.1 points since 1990.

Republicans have also made Democrats sweat bullets in heavily Democratic states. For example, in 1990, Democrat Daniel Akaka defeated Republican Patricia Saiki in a Hawaiian special election by just 9.4 points. The average margin of victory by Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in the six elections since has been a whopping 44.4 points.

Given the fact that special U.S. Senate elections are much more competitive than regular Senate races and that voters frequently 'flip' and vote into office the opposite political party from when the Senate seat in question was last on the ballot, it should not be so stunning that the Coakley-Brown matchup is as close as polls suggest heading into Tuesday's election. (Particularly given the current political environment that shows many Democrats struggling nationwide).

Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.

Previous post: Minnesota Republicans to End Census Period with Best U.S. House Electoral Record Since 1970s
Next post: Brown Victory in Massachusetts Would End 3rd Longest GOP U.S. Senate Drought in Nation

1 Comment


  • I appreciate your point of view and insight into special elections. At the same time, Brown has done a clearly superior job utilizing Social Media, especially Facebook and Twitter. This has been at the core of the GOP's plan since Obama was elected.

  • Leave a comment


    Remains of the Data

    Which States Have the Longest and Shortest Election Day Voting Hours?

    Residents in some North Dakota towns have less than half as many hours to cast their ballots as those in New York State.

    Political Crumbs

    No 100-Year Curse for Roberts

    Defeating his Tea Party primary challenger Milton Wolf with just 48.1 percent of the vote, Pat Roberts narrowly escaped becoming the first elected U.S. Senator from Kansas to lose a renomination bid in 100 years. The last - and so far only - elected U.S. Senator to lose a Kansas primary was one-term Republican Joseph Bristow in 1914. Bristow was defeated by former U.S. Senator Charles Curtis who went on to win three terms before becoming Herbert Hoover's running mate in 1928. Only one other U.S. Senator from the Sunflower State has lost a primary since the passage of the 17th Amendment: Sheila Frahm in 1996. Frahm was appointed to fill Bob Dole's seat earlier that year and finished 13.2 points behind Sam Brownback in the three-candidate primary field. Overall, incumbent senators from Kansas have won 29 times against two defeats in the direct vote era. (Curtis also lost a primary in 1912 to Walter Stubbs, one year before the nation moved to direct elections).


    The Second Time Around

    Former Republican Congressman Bob Beauprez became the seventh major party or second place gubernatorial candidate in Colorado to get a second chance at the office when he narrowly won his party's nomination last month. Two of the previous six candidates were successful. Democrat Alva Adams lost his first gubernatorial bid to Benjamin Eaton in 1884, but was victorious two years later against William Meyer. Democrat Charles Johnson placed third in 1894 behind Republican Albert McIntyre and Populist incumbent Governor David Waite but returned as the Fusion (Democrat/Populist) nominee in 1898 and defeated GOPer Henry Wolcott. Gubernatorial candidates who received a second chance but lost both general elections include Democrat Thomas Patterson (1888, 1914), Progressive Edward Costigan (1912, 1914), Republican Donald Brotzman (1954, 1956), and Republican David Strickland (1978, 1986).


    more POLITICAL CRUMBS

    Humphrey School Sites
    CSPG
    Humphrey New Media Hub

    Issues />

<div id=
    Abortion
    Afghanistan
    Budget and taxes
    Campaign finances
    Crime and punishment
    Economy and jobs
    Education
    Energy
    Environment
    Foreign affairs
    Gender
    Health
    Housing
    Ideology
    Immigration
    Iraq
    Media
    Military
    Partisanship
    Race and ethnicity
    Reapportionment
    Redistricting
    Religion
    Sexuality
    Sports
    Terrorism
    Third parties
    Transportation
    Voting