POLITICS: Campaigns

One lesson from Mississippi: Every vote counts

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Mississippi,2014 Elections,Campaigns,Haley Barbour,Thad Cochran

Thad Cochran must feel very grateful to Thomas L. Carey. He's the candidate whose 1.52 percent of the vote in the June 3 primary prevented the six-term Mississippi senator from losing the Republican nomination to state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who received 1,418 more votes.

Mississippi, like most Southern states, requires a candidate to win 50 percent of the primary vote to get a party's nomination; these requirements hark back to the days when the Democratic nomination was considered (as they always used to say) tantamount to election (have you ever heard or read the word ‘tantamount' in any other context?).

So McDaniel's 49.46 percent margin over Cochran's 49.02 percent was not enough to end Cochran's 42-year congressional career (he was elected to three terms in the House). This time Cochran led by 6,373 votes, a 50.8 to 49.2 percent margin.

Turnout in runoffs is almost always lower than in primaries; in this case it was 18 percent higher. Much of the difference seems to have been made up of black voters, whom the Cochran campaign assiduously courted. In this I see the fine hand of former Governor and Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour. Mississippi does not have party registration; any voter can request a Republican or Democratic ballot in a primary, and in a runoff any voter can do so except those who voted in the Democratic primary three weeks before.

Many political scientists and analysts don’t like these so-called open primaries; they argue that only the party faithful should choose the party’s candidates. Over the years I’ve taken another view, that party registration tends to lock in a party’s yesterday coalition and that in an open primary system a party can attract to its primary what might turn out to be tomorrow’s coalition.

Many McDaniel supporters are grousing about the result and arguing that Democratic voters tipped the balance. That's surely true: More than 90 percent of Mississippi blacks voted for Barack Obama (and nearly 90 percent of Mississippi whites for Mitt Romney). But over the years Thad Cochran has won the votes of significant numbers of Mississippi blacks more than once.

Those with long memories look back to 1972, when Cochran first ran for Congress; in the past two elections Mississippi had voted 87 percent for Barry Goldwater and 63 percent for George Wallace: majorities in both cases representing solid white opposition to ending racial segregation. In that setting Cochran ran a soothing not raucous campaign; he won his House seat and, in 1978, his Senate seat with pluralities of the vote against a white Democrat and a black Independent.

In any case, whatever you think of Cochran or the possibility of usually Democratic voters participating in a Republican primary, there’s one lesson here for everyone: Every vote counts. Very small numbers — in the hundreds or low thousands — decided this race in a state of nearly 3 million people.

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