States, States Everywhere But Nary a Bellwether in Sight
Wisconsin saw its streak backing the eventual Democratic presidential nominee in every primary since 1972 end when voters backed Bernie Sanders in 2016
From cycle to cycle – and 2020 is no exception – the primary election calendar shuffles.
Some states attempt to move up to get on the front end of the schedule. Other states flip between caucuses and primaries (and sometimes back again) for their delegate-awarding process.
As a result, it is difficult to identify true ‘bellwether’ primary states – states that have consistently voted for the eventual nominee and done so early enough on the election calendar while the nomination is still in doubt and leading challengers have not yet suspended their campaigns.
On the Democratic side, no state has an unblemished record backing the eventual nominee during the modern primary era (1972+).
Wisconsin saw its streak of nine cycles in a row end in 2016 when Bernie Sanders won 56.6 percent of the primary vote on April 5th – 13.5 points ahead of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.
[Note: Wisconsin has not always held its contest this late in the process. The 2004 primary was held on February 17th and the 2008 primary on February 19th].
The Badger State backed George McGovern in 1972 (29.6 percent), Jimmy Carter in 1976 (36.6 percent), Carter in 1980 (56.2 percent), Walter Mondale in the 1984 caucus (the primary, won by Gary Hart, was only advisory that cycle), Michael Dukakis in 1988 (47.6 percent), Bill Clinton in 1992 (37.2 percent) and 1996 (97.6 percent), Al Gore in 2000 (88.6 percent), John Kerry in 2004 (39.6 percent), and Barack Obama in 2008 (58.1 percent) and 2012 (98.2 percent).
With Wisconsin Democrats giving Sanders a win in 2016, the longest current streak of states backing the ultimate Democratic nominee now dates back to 1992 – a feat achieved by seven states: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Virginia.
Two of these states – Alabama and Virginia – will conduct their primaries on Super Tuesday this cycle (March 3rd).
During the contested Democratic primary cycles under analysis, Alabama held its primary during the first week of June in 1992, 2000, and 2004 before switching to Super Tuesday in 2008 (February 5th) and 2016 (March 1st).
Most of these primaries were blow-outs:
- 1992 (June 2nd): Clinton won 68.2 percent – 48.1 points over ‘uncommitted’
- 2000 (June 6th): Gore received 76.7 percent – 59.1 points more than ‘uncommitted’
- 2004 (June 1st): Kerry won 75.0 percent – 57.6 points over ‘uncommitted’
- 2008 (February 5th): Obama defeated Clinton by 14.4 points with 56.0 percent
- 2016 (March 1st): Clinton beat Sanders by 58.7 points with 77.9 percent
Alabama is on the Super Tuesday primary schedule again in 2020.
Georgia has consistently held its primaries relatively early in the nominating process during this period with voters casting their primary ballots during the first week of March in 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2016 and in February on Super Tuesday in 2008:
- 1992 (March 3rd): Clinton won Georgia by 33.2 points over Paul Tsongas with 57.2 percent
- 2000 (March 7th): Gore beat Bill Bradley by 67.6 points with 83.8 percent
- 2004 (March 2nd): Kerry eked out a 5.4-point win over John Edwards with 46.8 percent
- 2008 (February 5th): Obama defeated Clinton by 35.3 points with 66.4 percent
- 2016 (March 1st): Clinton clobbered Sanders by 43.1 points with 71.3 percent
In 2020, Georgia does not hold its primary until March 24th – the 29th state to hold its presidential contest for the Democrats this cycle.
Illinois has likewise consistently held its primary in mid-March, with the exception of the 2008 cycle in which it also fell on Super Tuesday:
- 1992 (March 17th): Clinton defeated Tsongas by 25.9 points with 51.7 percent
- 2000 (March 21st): Gore beat Bradley (who dropped out of the race 12 days prior) by 70.1 point with 84.4 percent
- 2004 (March 16th): Kerry defeated Edwards (who exited the race two weeks prior) by 60.9 points with 71.1 percent
- 2008 (February 5th): Obama nearly doubled-up on Clinton with a 31.9-point win with 64.7 percent
- 2016 (March 15th): Clinton eked out a 2.0-point victory over Sanders with 50.6 percent
Illinois’ primary is once again set for the third week of March in 2020 (March 17th) after 24 states have voted.
Louisiana Democrats have voted in the presidential primary in early to mid-March for most of these cycles:
- 1992 (March 10th): Clinton trounced Tsongas by 58.4 points with 69.5 percent
- 2000 (March 14th): Gore defeated Bradley (who had dropped out of the race five days prior) by 53.0 points with 73.0 percent
- 2004 (March 9th): Kerry beat Edwards (who had exited the race one week prior) by 53.6 points with 69.7 percent
- 2008 (February 9th): Obama defeated Clinton by 21.8 points with 57.4 percent
- 2016 (March 5th): Clinton crushed Sanders by 47.9 points with 71.1 percent
Louisiana holds its primary later than usual in the 2020 cycle with the Democratic primary set for April 4th after 29 states have voted.
Mississippi has consistently held its presidential primary during the second week of March during its run of backing the eventual nominee:
- 1992 (March 10th): Clinton defeated Jerry Brown by 63.6 points with 73.2 percent
- 2000 (March 14th): Gore finished 81.0 points ahead of Bradley (five days after he dropped out) with 89.6 percent
- 2004 (March 9th): Kerry beat Edwards by 71.1 points (one week after he exited the race) with 78.4 percent
- 2008 (March 11th): Obama defeated Clinton by 25.5 points with 61.2 percent
- 2016 (March 8th): Clinton routed Sanders by 65.9 points with 82.5 percent
Mississippi did not change its primary date this cycle – set for March 10th.
Missouri hosted two of the biggest nail-biters during the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries, with the eventual nominee winning each time:
- 1992 (March 10th, caucus): Clinton won 45.1 percent – 6.1 points more than ‘uncommitted’
- 2000 (March 7th): Gore defeated Bradley by 31.1 points with 64.6 percent
- 2004 (March 3rd): Kerry beat Edwards (who dropped out of the race one day prior) by 26.0 points with 50.6 percent
- 2008 (February 5th): Obama edged Clinton by 1.4 points with 49.3 percent
- 2016 (March 15th): Clinton escaped with a 0.3-point victory over Sanders with 49.6 percent
Missouri holds its primary on March 10th this cycle – the week following Super Tuesday.
Virginia switched from a primary to caucuses in 1992 and back to primaries in 2004 and has held its contests in February, March, and April:
- 1992 (April 11th, caucus): Clinton won 52.0 percent – 16.0 points more than ‘uncommitted’
- 2000 (April 15th, caucus): Gore won a majority of the delegates
- 2004 (February 10th): Kerry defeated Edwards by 24.9 points with 51.5 percent
- 2008 (February 12th): Obama easily beat Clinton by 28.2 points with 63.7 percent
- 2016 (March 1st): Clinton defeated Sanders by 29.1 points with 64.3 percent
Virginia holds its primary on Super Tuesday, March 3rd.
The track record of one other 2020 Super Tuesday state should be noted. Like Wisconsin, Texas nearly has a perfect record dating back to 1972.
In 2008, approximately two-thirds of pledged delegates were awarded based on the results of the March 4th primary. That primary was won by Hillary Clinton by 3.5 points. A bit more than one-third of pledged delegates were awarded based on the caucuses, which were won by Obama.
A split decision also took place in 1988 when Michael Dukakis beat Jesse Jackson by 8.3 points in the primary eking out a plurality of the 119 delegates awarded in that contest while Jackson was the plurality winner of the 64 delegates at stake in the caucuses.
By contrast, several states have failed to back the eventual Democratic nominee (or saw ‘uncommitted’ slates win a plurality or majority) at least half the time since 1972 in their primaries, caucuses, or conventions: Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington.
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“Minnesota’s streak would date to 1992 as well except…”: Sanders (62%) won the 2016 Minnesota caucuses over Clinton (38%). It appears that 1992 and 2016 were the only cycles in which Minnesota did not predict the eventual nominee. Two substantial differences between the 2016 and 2020 contests in Minnesota are that this time there will be a primary (not a caucus) and there will be the presence of a home-state candidate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Unrelated: Deval Patrick ended his presidential campaign after receiving just 0.4% of the vote in New Hampshire; his campaign lasted from November 14 to February 12, or (all or part of) 91 days. Patrick narrowly beats out Eric Swalwell (92 days) for the third-shortest campaign of the 2020 cycle, behind (newly-turned U.S. Senate candidate) Richard Ojeda (76 days) and Republican Mark Sanford (66 days). Overall, Patrick recorded the twelfth-shortest major presidential campaign since the start of modern primaries. Patrick is not the last entrant to the 2020 race; Michael Bloomberg launched his campaign on November 24 and has met considerably more success than Patrick.
RE: Minnesota – Support for Sanders in 2016 also ended streaks that were even longer in Hawaii (’88), Kansas (’80), Montana (’88), Nebraska (’88), North Dakota (’88), Oregon (’88), and Wyoming (’88) – almost all caucus states as well. (Clinton did win the 2016 NE primary, but it was nonbinding).