Competitiveness in national elections does not trickle down to state level

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October 5, 2010

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By Leslie Graves and Geoff Pallay

MADISON, Wisconsin: 6,125 state legislative seats in 46 states are up for election on November 2, 2010, but according to a multi-pronged study of electoral competitiveness of all 6,125 districts, as a rule in 2010, the fierce competition that marks the country's federal and gubernatorial elections has not manifested at the level of 2010's state legislative elections.

In addition to analyzing the 6,125 districts with 2010 elections, the 46 states with legislative elections in 2010 were contrasted on an Electoral Competitiveness Index. According to this index, the five states with the most competitive state legislative elections in 2010 are New Hampshire (the most competitive at #1), Michigan, Arizona, Nevada and Maryland. The five states with the least competitive state legislative elections are Texas (the least competitive at #46), Tennessee, Delaware, Kentucky and New Mexico.

  • There is only one major party candidate in 2,000 (32.7%) of the 6,125 contests on November 2.
  • Only 1,133 incumbents faced primary opposition. Thus, 77.3% of incumbents faced no primary challenger. Of the 1,133 incumbents who did face a primary, only 95 were defeated by the challenger. Thus, 91.6% of all incumbents who faced a primary opponent won their primary. But, if all 4,985 incumbents who elected to run for re-election are counted, only 1.9% of incumbents did not make it to the general election.
  • The incumbent is seeking re-election in 81.4% of all state legislative races. In the 32 states with state legislative elections in 2010 where there are no state legislative term limits, incumbents are running in 87.17% of districts with 2010 elections. In the 14 term-limited states holding legislative elections in 2010, on the other hand, 35.19% of seats were open this year.
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Primary Results of the Study

Status Senate House Total
Seats up 1,167 4,958 6,125
Incumbents running 894 4,091 4,985
 % with no incumbent 23.6% 17.5% 18.6%
Incumbents with no primary 708 3,144 3,852
 % with no primary 79.2% 76.8% 77.3%
Candidates with no major party opposition 320 1,680 2,000
 % with no major party opposition 27.4% 33.9% 32.7%
Incumbents with no primary or general 210 1,085 1,295
 % with no primary or general 23.5% 26.5% 26.0%

Tale of the tape

2010 Competitiveness Overview
Competitiveness logo 4.jpg
Primary competition (state comparison)
Incumbents with no primary challenge in 2010
Incumbents with no challenges at all in 2010
Incumbents defeatedVictorious challengers
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   Results Comparisons  Star bookmark.png
Chart Comparing 2011 ResultsComparisons Between Years
Party differences
Competitiveness Index
2010 State Legislative Elections
Competitiveness Studies from Other Years

New Hampshire is the most competitive state in 2010 while Texas is the least competitive. But exactly how different are they?

State Open seats Primary challenger Major party candidates Competitiveness Rank
New Hampshire 24.1% 74.2% 1.89% 1
Texas 4.8% 18.4% 60.84% 46

The most effective way to gauge the difference is to compare percentages.

  • In New Hampshire, there are 5 times as many open seats as Texas.
  • In New Hampshire, there are 4 times as many incumbents who faced a primary challenger as Texas.
  • In New Hampshire, there are 32 times fewer major party general election candidates faced no major party competition than Texas.

Relative competitiveness

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

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

Under the absolute scenario, there would be 100% of all incumbents facing a primary opponent, and 100% of all general election seats have Democratic and Republican candidates. Thus, there would be a degree of 100 -- the most competitive.

In the 2010 state legislative election, New Hampshire would receive the top rating with a degree of 86.55. Texas, the least competitive, would be a degree of 28.76.

However, to provide scope of how uncompetitive even this year's best performers are, Utah finished 10th in the overall rank. But Utah has a degree of 54.45. Arizona, the third most competitive state according to our analysis, has 62.78 points.

If this were school, a passing grade is typically 70. Only two states would receive a grade above D for competitiveness -- Maryland and New Hampshire.

The truth is in the data -- outside of New Hampshire, no state even comes above 70 points on the absolute scale.


We asked election observers who write about state elections for comment:

  • Eric O'Keefe of the Sam Adams Alliance: "These findings should be alarming to any engaged citizen. And, they could even stir some of those not actively engaged because they show voters an easy way to make a difference. That is, to demand real choices on the ballot...2010 may go down as the year citizens discovered how to use congressional primaries to challenge the usual suspects from inside the Beltway. 2012, then, can be the year when voters take control of their states – where the future of the Republic will be decided -- by actively engaging in state legislative elections.”
  • Jon Walker, elections analyst at FireDogLake: "You can't have working democracy without contested elections. The lack of contested state house elections shows there are deep problems with our political system including gerrymandering, campaign financing, plurality winner elections (first past the post) that need reform. We clearly need reforms that would move to a fairer more accountable Democracy by allowing a greater range of voice to constructively take part in our politics. Reforms such as public financing of elections, nonpartisan district creation and proportional representation, or at least instant runoff voting."


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