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Competitiveness dips in 2011 state legislative elections compared to 2010

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October 25, 2011

2011 Competitiveness Overview
3Competitive 2011.jpg
Primary competition (state comparison)
Incumbents with no challenges at all in 2011
Incumbents defeatedVictorious challengers
Primary competitiveness
Major party challengers (state comparison)
List of candidates with no competition
Open seats (state comparisons)
Impact of term limits on # of open seats
Long-serving senatorsLong-serving reps
Star bookmark.png   Chart Comparing 2011 Results   Star bookmark.png
Chart Comparing 2011 ResultsComparisons Between Years
Competitiveness IndexAbsolute Index
2011 State Legislative Elections
Competitiveness Studies from Other Years

By Geoff Pallay

MADISON, Wisconsin: More than 50% of incumbents running for re-election in 2011 face no primary or general election competition in this year's state legislative elections, according to a new Ballotpedia study on competitiveness.

A total of 578 seats will be up for election in October/November 2011. Three states -- Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia hold elections on November 8. Louisiana, with its blanket primary system -- uses both October 22 and November 19 as election dates.

Last year, Ballotpedia staff conducted our first-ever study on state legislative electoral competitiveness. The atmosphere of federal and gubernatorial elections in 2010 was marked by a competitive fire -- one that our study showed did not trickle down to the state legislative level.

In 2011, we conducted that same study on the four states with general elections this year, and then compared those results to their prior elections in 2007 and 2009. Additionally, we analyzed how these states would have placed had they held elections last year. Our study gauges competitiveness based on three primary factors (See Methodology section below for more details):

  1. How many incumbents ran for re-election?
  2. How many incumbents running for re-election faced a primary opponent?
  3. How many major party candidates faced no major party opponent in the general election?

In addition to analyzing the 578 districts with 2011 elections, the four states with legislative elections in 2011 were contrasted on an Electoral Competitiveness Index. According to this index, the ranking is as follows:

  1. Louisiana (the most competitive at #1)
  2. New Jersey
  3. Mississippi
  4. Virginia

Primary results of the study

Here are the results from 2011:

  • The incumbent is seeking re-election in 81.8% of all state legislative races. One state with elections in 2011 -- Louisiana has term limits. There are 13 term-limited legislators. Adjusting for term limits, 83.7% of eligible incumbents chose to run for re-election in 2011.
    • In 2010, 81.4% of incumbents ran for re-election.
  • Only 95 incumbents faced primary opposition. Thus, 79.9% of incumbents running faced no primary challenger.
    • In 2010, 77.5% of incumbents faced no primary challenger.
  • There is only one major party candidate in 246 (42.6%) of the 578 contests in 2011.
    • In 2010, 32.7% of the 6,125 seats had only one major party candidate.

The most stark comparison between 2010 and 2011 is the number of incumbents who faced no primary or general election opposition.

In 2011, 50.1% of incumbents running for re-election do not face any primary or general election opposition. There are 237 incumbents in this category out of the 473 incumbents that are running. In 2010, 26.0% of incumbents had no primary or general election opposition.

Thus, more than half of all incumbents virtually won their re-election bid as soon as the signature filing period ended.

Status Senate House Total
Seats up in 2011 171 407 578
Incumbents running 144 329 473
 % with no incumbent 15.8% 19.2% 18.2%
Incumbents with no primary 116 262 378
 % with no primary 80.6% 79.6% 79.9%
Candidates with no major party opposition 65 181 246
 % with no major party opposition 38.0% 44.5% 42.6%
Incumbents with no primary or general 55 182 237
 % with no primary or general 38.2% 55.3% 50.1%
Competitiveness Overview
Competitive Analysis Main Logo.JPG
Competitiveness Studies by Year
Year-by-year comparison of results

Absolute competitiveness

See also: Creating an absolute measure for the "Competitiveness Index" in state legislative elections and Comparing the competitiveness index for state legislative elections

In order to put elections in perspective year-to-year, it is worth examining an absolutely competitive scenario -- one where there are challengers for every incumbent and both major parties field a candidate in every election.

For this "degree" of absolute competitiveness, each state will be given 1 point for each percentage based on the three factors. Then, the points are added up and divided by three to establish the rating. 1 is least competitive and 100 equals most competitive.

Under the perfectly competitive scenario, 100% of incumbents would not run for re-election, 100% of all incumbents running would face a primary opponent, and 100% of all general election contests would have Democratic and Republican candidates. Thus, there would be a rating of 100 -- the most competitive (hypothetical) scenario. This perfect scenario is not feasibly possible, because if all incumbents did not run for re-election, then there would be no incumbents running in a primary. A plausible perfect scenario is that there are 100 incumbents. 99 do not run for re-election. The one incumbent who runs faces a primary. In all 100 races, there are both Democrats and Republicans in the general election. This scenario would receive a 99.7 rating.

In the 2010 state legislative elections, New Hampshire would receive the top rating of 65.4. Texas, the least competitive, had a rating of 20.8. This chart below shows a comparison between years of overall percentages based on the three factors studied.

Comparison of Competitiveness Between Years
2007 2009 2010 2011
 % open Seats 13.7% 10.5% 18.6% 18.2%
 % incumbent that did face primary opposition 22.7% 18.6% 22.7% 20.1%
 % major party candidates that did face a major party opponent 53.3% 73.3% 67.3% 57.4%

Best and worst of 2011

Louisiana is the most competitive state in 2011 while Virginia is the least competitive. But exactly how different are they?

State Open seats Incumbents with primary Two major party candidates 2011 Competitiveness Rank
Louisiana 26.0% 38.3% 56.2% 1
Virginia 13.6% 1.7% 43.6% 4

Meanwhile, another way to look at the data is to see how the 2011 states would compare to other years. Using our Absolute Index, Louisiana would have a rating of 40.2. Last year, New Hampshire received the highest rating of 65.4. Meanwhile, Virginia's absolute rating is 19.6.

On a scale of 100, clearly all four states with elections in 2011 perform poorly with respect to competitiveness.

Last week, Louisiana held its primary election. As mentioned above, Louisiana had the highest relative competitiveness in our study among the four states with 2011 elections. More important than the numeric rank among other states, is the overall lack of competitiveness in all states. This was evidenced clearly in Louisiana, where despite 144 seats being up for election, 119 of them were decided in the primary. No incumbents lost, and generally the elections were not close. So, despite having the highest competitiveness rating, the state still suffered from an uncompetitive environment overall where incumbents dominated the elections.

If this were school, a passing grade would typically be 70. And yet, no states received a passing grade in 2010 or 2011.


The following comments were provided by political observers:

  • Mark Meckler, Co-Founder and National Coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots: "Your study shows how important it is for people to get involved during the primaries at every level, from city council up through the federal government. The real action, and the real battlefield for the soul of the nation will be fought in the primaries for years to come."
  • Leo Linbeck III, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of the Alliance for Self-Governance: "The lack of competitiveness seen in these four states highlights the off-year election effect. It is a product of a great incumbent protection scheme. Off-year elections leads to lower visibility, lower voter awareness, and then therefore an easier path for incumbents to holding onto their seats."


An overall electoral competitiveness score was derived for each state by averaging its score on three scales, each of which represents one competitiveness factor.

Those competitiveness factors are:

See also