Obama's Impact on Downballot Elections

With Barack Obama moving from presumptive Democratic nominee to actual Democratic nominee, now seems like a good time to judge just how the Illinois senator ...
by | August 28, 2008

With Barack Obama moving from presumptive Democratic nominee to actual Democratic nominee, now seems like a good time to judge just how the Illinois senator will affect downballot elections.

To do that, I've updated my numbers from a few weeks ago, comparing Obama's performance in state polls (based on pollster.com averages) to John Kerry's performance on Election Day 2004. From those numbers, you can get a sense of the states where Obama will help Democrats running for lower offices and where he will hurt them.

All of this analysis, of course, is predicated on the theory that there's a connection between the top and bottom of the ballot. Sometimes that's true, sometimes it isn't. But I guarantee you that most state politicians care quite a bit about the appeal of their party's presidential nominee.

States where Obama is running 15 percentage points or more ahead of Kerry: Alaska 28.25, North Dakota, 24.96, Idaho 23.72, Montana 23.6, Hawaii 21.26, Wyoming 18.59, Texas 15.96, South Dakota 15.37.

For such a Republican group of states, there are actually a bunch of good battles for legislative control in these states. Both houses of the Montana legislature are in play. Democrats stand a good chance of pulling even in the Alaska Senate. In the North Dakota and South Dakota senates, Democrats need to flip three seats to gain control. Optimistic Democrats will even tell you the Texas House of Representatives, where the Republican edge has shrunk steadily, is in play.

Obama's red state support in the Democratic primaries is a big reason he is the nominee today. One reason for that support is that in places Bill Clinton never won even once in his two presidential campaigns, Obama looked like he'd be a stronger candidate than Hillary Clinton. At least for now -- and at least in this group of states -- that argument has been vindicated.

States where Obama is running 10 points to 14.9 points ahead of Kerry: Indiana 14.78, Oklahoma 12.94, Alabama 12.82, Nebraska 11.82, Connecticut 10.63, Georgia 10.6

Obama should be able to help Democrats in the biennial battle for the Indiana House of Representatives -- or at least hurt them less than Democratic presidential nominees usually do. Right now, Democrats have a 51-49 edge.

However, Obama's strength isn't helping the Democratic nominee for governor, Jill Long Thompson, who seems to be a longer and longer shot against incumbent Mitch Daniels. Maybe if Evan Bayh had been the running mate?

Besides Indiana, there isn't too much to get excited about in the rest of these states, other than the fate of the Oklahoma Senate.

States where Obama is running 7 points to 9.9 points ahead of Kerry: Mississippi 9.69, Wisconsin 9.62, South Carolina 9.58, Virginia 9.5, North Carolina 9.33, Vermont 8.86, Utah 8.54, California 7.35, Iowa 7.17

In the open seat race for governor in North Carolina, Obama is the not-so-secret weapon of Democrat Bev Perdue. It's not necessarily that North Carolina voters will say "I like Obama, therefore I like Democrats, therefore I like Bev Perdue" -- Obama still trails by a few points in the state.

But, by giving North Carolina the swing state treatment, Obama's campaign is mobilizing and registering Democrats (especially black voters), most of whom will also vote for Perdue. Republican Pat McCrory probably wishes John McCain seemed more concerned about the state, so that he'd get some help in turnout too.

Maybe Obama's candidacy will jeopardize Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, but Vermonters have been quite willing to split their tickets in the past. Legislative elections will be interesting in Wisconsin and Iowa.

States where Obama is running 4 to 6.9 points ahead of Kerry: Kansas 6.88, Colorado 6.77, New Mexico 5.99, Kentucky 5.26, Arizona 5.07, Maine 4.8, Pennsylvania 4.8, Illinois 4.66, New Jersey 4.42, Maryland 4.32, Minnesota 4.02

There's not too much going on in these states, other than the very competitive fights for the Maine Senate and Pennsylvania House. Perhaps the Democratic edges in Colorado could be in jeopardy, although, if so, it won't be because of Obama.

One surprise is that neither McCain nor Obama is especially strong in their home states. Republicans have narrow majorities in both houses of the Arizona legislature, although it would be pretty surprising if the Democrats could actually win control with McCain at the top of the ticket.

States where Obama is running 4 points or less ahead of Kerry: Ohio 3.81, Washington 3.42, Rhode Island 3.35, Missouri 3.1, Arkansas 2.66, Oregon 2.64, Florida 2.41, Michigan 1.68, Delaware 1.41, New York 1.21, Nevada 0.29, New Hampshire 0.23

Washington and Missouri are, of course, two states with key gubernatorial races. For the time being, it looks like the presidential race will be a wash in both states.

Of course, the actual results of the presidential race matter, not just the comparison to 2004. If Obama is winning Washington (seems likely), Democrat Christine Gregoire will want to latch on to him. If McCain is winning Missouri (also seems likely), Republican Kenny Hulshof may benefit.

McCain is holding his own in Michigan, New York, Nevada and Ohio, all of which have marquee legislative elections. New Hampshire is also an interesting case. Democrats won historic gains in the legislature in 2006, in part because the state's ballots make it very easy to vote a straight ticket. Republicans didn't have anyone strong at the top of the ticket. McCain looks like he will help with that problem.

The polling in Delaware is very old. I suspect that with Joe Biden on the ticket Democrats have improved their chances of winning the Delaware House of Representatives. The party's prospects of retaining the governorship probably also improved.

States where Obama is running behind Kerry: Tennessee -0.43, West Virginia -0.64, Louisiana -0.69, Massachusetts -6.56

There's nothing to see in these states, except the battle for the Tennessee Senate.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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