Creating an absolute measure for the "Competitiveness Index" in state legislative elections

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2012 State Legislative Elections
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In 2010, Ballotpedia staffers created a Competitiveness Index for use on state legislative elections. There were three factors used in the index.

This index primarily functioned by comparing states against one another to achieve a relative ranking -- such that in 2010, New Hampshire was the most competitive while Texas was the least.

The section below will establish the system by which states can be compared across years by using an absolute measure of competitiveness.

Absolute Index

For this degree of absolute competitiveness, each state would hypothetically be given 1 point for each percentage. 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 a more likely hypothetical scenario, the following three statistics could be possible from a state:

  • 20% of incumbents retire (80% don't)
  • 17% of incumbents with a primary challenger (83% without)
  • 45% of major party candidates with a major party challenger (55% without)

Therefore, this state would get 20 points (open seats) + 17 points (incumbents face primary) + 45 points (candidates face major party) = 82 points out of a possible 300. Dividing 82/300 = a "grade" of 27.3 on a scale of 0-100.

Using the absolute index makes it easier to compare competitiveness from year-to-year.


In the 2010 state legislative election, New Hampshire would receive the top rating of 196.43. This comes from:

  • 24.1% of incumbents retire
  • 74.22% of incumbents with a primary challenger
  • 98.11% of major party candidates with major party opposition

Thus, New Hampshire receives an absolute index of 196.43 -- which when divided by 300 yields an overall "grade" of 65.4.

Even the most competitive state in 2010 still could not earn a "passing grade" of 70.

Texas, the least competitive, would be a rating of 20.8.

  • 4.8% of incumbents retire
  • 18.35% of incumbents faced a primary
  • 39.16% of major party candidates with major party opposition

Thus, Texas receives a absolute index of 62.31 -- which when divided by 300 yields an overall "grade" of 20.8.

Three competitiveness factors

Here are more expansive thoughts on the three factors used in the competitiveness index.

Primary challenger

Main article: Unchallenged incumbents in the 2010 state legislative elections and Incumbents with no primary challenger in the 2011 state legislative elections

Factor 1: If the incumbent does run for re-election, does he or she draw a primary challenge?

We've collected data that measures "If an incumbent is running for re-election, does he or she have a general election opponent" and "How many incumbents running for re-election had no opponent, either in the primary or in the general?," and we think these figures are extremely important to consider.

But, for the purposes of the Competitiveness Index, we've elected to use an analysis of incumbents with primary challengers versus incumbents without primary challengers. This factor shows interesting variance from state-to-state.

In our view, a state where relatively more incumbents face a primary challenge is clearly a more competitive electoral environment than those states with very few (and some with no) primary challenges to incumbents.

No major party competition

Main article: Major party candidates with no major party challengers in the November 2010 state legislative elections and Major party candidates with major party competition in the November 2011 state legislative elections

Factor 2: Are there two major party candidates in the general election?

If a Republican or a Democratic candidate doesn't have a Democratic or Republican general election competitor, then 98% or more of the time, he or she is virtually guaranteed a win in November. A state where there are many legislative candidates without major party competition in the general election is clearly a state with a much less competitive electoral environment than states where most or all legislative candidates do have major party competition in the general.

There are 7,384 total state legislative seats -- 1,971 state senators and 5,413 state representatives. Nearly 100% of those legislators are either Democrats or Republicans.

In most states, a large majority of the time, third party and independent candidates do not represent significant electoral competition to Republican and Democratic candidates.

For this factor, therefore, we simply count how many Republicans have a Democratic opponent in a general election and how many Democrats have a Republican challenger. We realize that there are some districts where a Republican or a Democrat does have serious competition from a third party or independent candidate but we believe that the number of these cases is so small as to not skew our overall results appreciably.[1]

Incumbent retires

Main articles: Open seats in the 2010 state legislative elections and Open seats in the 2011 state legislative elections

Factor 3: Is the incumbent running for re-election or not?

We chose to include this factor in our Competitiveness Index because when incumbents run, they enjoy significant advantages over their challenger. This is why, at all levels of politics, incumbents who are running for re-election defeat their challenger more than 90% of the time, even in years, such as 2010, when voters poll as having a high degree of anti-incumbent sentiment.

Everything else being equal, if you're looking at a state legislative chamber with 100 seats, and 100 of the incumbents are running for re-election, you have what we consider to be a "less competitive" election than if only 50 or 75 of the incumbents are running for re-election.


If you have any questions or comments about Ballotpedia's competitiveness index, please email Geoff Pallay.


  1. However, we'd be happy to take a look at individual districts where there are serious independent or third party candidates and to make note of those in our final report.