We don’t often see a runoff in a general election, but if Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith were to lose Mississippi’s Senate runoff on Tuesday, after the two Republican candidates combined to win a sizable majority of the initial vote, that would be even more unusual.
In the first round, Republicans Hyde-Smith and Chris McDaniel combined for a bit less than 58 percent of the vote, while Democrat Mike Espy and one other candidate from his party together won a little more than 42 percent. For Espy to win, the runoff vote has to swing more than 15 points more Democratic than the initial vote margin. But if we look at the five Senate elections since 1990 where an initial round of voting was held on the national Election Day and two candidates advanced to a runoff,1 no challenger has ever come close to outperforming the previous round of voting by the kind of margin Espy would need to win. What’s more, no runoff has ever shifted that much in either party’s direction.
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In fact, the biggest swing recorded — 12 points in the 2008 Georgia Senate runoff — favored the incumbent and not the challenger. Of the five previous Senate elections that went to a runoff, four featured incumbents, and in those contests, the swing in party vote share moved in the challenger’s favor only once. In Georgia’s 1992 Senate election, Democratic Sen. Wyche Fowler missed a majority by 1 percentage point in the general election, and in the runoff, challenger Republican Paul Coverdell squeaked out a narrow victory as the margin shifted 3 points in the GOP’s direction.
As for that big swing in Georgia’s 2008 Senate election, it came about in part because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the general election. The initial vote took place during Barack Obama’s first presidential bid, which saw African-American voters turn out at much higher rates than usual, both nationally and in Georgia. That turnout did not repeat itself in the runoff, however, and Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss won re-election by 15 points.
The next-largest shift (and the largest shift in a midterm election) also benefited an incumbent, although it was much smaller. In 2002, four GOP candidates combined for a narrow edge over two Democratic candidates in the initial vote, but Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu narrowly won the Louisiana Senate runoff by shifting the margin 6 points in a Democratic direction. So a Democrat has moved the needle enough to win a runoff in the Deep South in the recent past, although the politics of Louisiana (and the rest of the region) have shifted further toward the GOP since the early 2000s. Moreover, Landrieu didn’t need nearly as large a swing as Espy does in 2018.
From this admittedly small sample of Senate runoffs, an Espy win looks like a long shot: These races rarely swing by nearly as much as he needs to win, and when they swing at all, it’s more often toward the incumbent than the challenger. Furthermore, the Nov. 6 result in Mississippi looks similar to the 2014 and 2016 contests in Louisiana, which also bodes poorly for Espy. In those races, the GOP candidates combined for a double-digit margin in the first election, and in the runoff, the Democrat only gained a little ground. In that 2014 race, Landrieu was voted out of office after nearly 20 years in the Senate (no incumbent ran in 2016). As Nathaniel Rakich wrote in our preview of the Mississippi runoff, Espy needs today’s electorate to be substantially different from the voters who turned out earlier this month; Espy likely needs a strong turnout from black voters, who lean very Democratic, combined with some apathy among white voters, who are strongly Republican in Mississippi.