A "Competitiveness Index" for capturing competitiveness in state legislative elections

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What information should be assessed in determining the extent to which a state has relatively more, or relatively less, competitiveness in its state legislative elections?

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One of the key components of a functioning democracy is a competitive election process. This serves a number of important functions -- including a check on political power. If legislators have to worry about an election, they will worry about pleasing the voters that put them in power. If a legislative process is without competition, then it begins to resemble a monopoly. Rather than a government that serves the people, a government without competitive elections becomes an entity that acts at the whims and will of the officials in power.

When examining state legislative elections, there are a number of variables that dictate competitiveness.

Approveda Is the incumbent running for re-election?
Approveda Does the incumbent face a primary challenge?
Approveda Are there two majority party candidates in the general election?
Approveda Does the incumbent face any primary or general election opposition?

When developing the methodology for gauging competitiveness, these were the factors we considered while creating our index.

  • Is the incumbent running for re-election?
More than 90 percent of the time, an incumbent running for re-election is able to defeat the challenger. This is true at all levels of politics -- federal, state and local. Thus, simply running challengers up against an incumbent alone does not merit competitiveness. There must be times when there is no incumbent running for a seat in order for a truly competitive race to take place.
In the 2010 elections, 86.6% of incumbents who were legally able to run in the election chose to run. Thus, only 13.4% of seats were considered open, with no incumbent running for re-election.
  • Does the incumbent face a primary challenge?
    In the 2010 state legislative elections, only 22.7% of incumbents running for re-election actually faced a primary challenge. Such a low number of primary races gives the incumbents a leg up on their general election challengers. While the opposition is focusing on a primary, the incumbent can devote all of their resources into the general election. For a truly competitive district race to occur, candidates should face equal levels of competition -- which would mean primaries and general election opponents. Thus, when characterizing the competitiveness of an election, a lack of primary opposition signals lack of competition in the district.
    In the 2010 elections, 77.3% of incumbents running for re-election faced no primary opposition. Of the 1,130 incumbents who faced a primary challenge, only 88 lost their primary. This is 7.8% of the 1,130 incumbents who had primary opposition.
  • Are there two majority party candidates in the general election?
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. Thus, while third parties are an important aspect of the political world, they do not represent true competition for district representation. To truly view a district election as competitive, there would need to be candidates from both major parties.
  • Does the incumbent face any primary or general election opposition?
While gauging the number of times two major parties face in a general election is valuable, there are many districts that are heavily gerrymandered at the state level. Thus, they are essentially safely Democrat or safely Republican. What this means, is that the primary itself is often the true election. In a district that is drawn up to have more than 70% of the voters from one party, it is nearly impossible for an opposition party to win the district. They thus, will consider not even fielding a candidate in the general election. Thus, whoever wins the party primary, is essentially assured general election victory. In order to further delve into the category of which incumbents face no challenge in their re-election bid, it is important to judge who faces no opposition in both primaries and general elections.

See also

Ballotpedia:Competitiveness analysis, 2010 state legislative elections