Not since 1982 has the Democratic candidate for the ballot’s top office prevailed. Five times since, the top ballot candidate was the worst performing Democratic candidate for statewide office.

In baseball, it’s easier to score runs if the leadoff batter gets on. In elections, it’s easier for down-ballot candidates if the leadoff race is a win. No top-office Democrat has cleared even 45% — measured head-to-head against the Republican candidate – since Bill Clinton in 1996, the first year of Republicans’ ongoing sweep of statewide offices.

How Top-of-ballot Democrats Fared Since 1982

Thus, a down-ballot Democratic candidate needs “defections”: voters who cast ballots for the lead-off Republican but still give at least some votes to Democrats. Farther down the ballot, and depending on the district, Democratic candidates need more defections, including voters whose ballots are solidly Republican, except for one or two candidates of the other party.

The number of down-ballot Democrats who can hold on despite Republican gains continues to dwindle. At the local level, many have switched parties to remain in office or been ousted by Republican rivals. At the legislative and congressional level, many have been redistricted out of existence.

Historical Deflections in Three House Districts

The chart above tracks the over-performance of Democratic legislators relative to the average statewide Democratic candidate in HD12, HD45 and HD85, as those districts existed in 2002-10. The gap between the purple line and the blue line represents defections. Voters occupying this gap voted mostly, if not entirely, for Republican statewide candidates, yet opted to vote for a local Democratic candidate. As statewide Democratic candidates’ share of the vote plunged in these districts, the gap was too much to make up, and all three lost in 2010.

As we’ve previously noted, straight-ticket votes – particularly straight-ticket Republican votes – represent an ever greater share of all ballots cast. This makes it even harder for a candidate to find enough defectors to win. The math is simpler at the state level, but the trend, and thus the effect, is the same.

Spread of Democratic Statewide Candidates

The chart above shows the spread between the best and worst performing Democratic statewide candidates for each general election since 1992. The solid blue line indicates the average for all Democratic statewide candidates, and the blue squares show how the candidate at the top of the ballot fared. Each figure is calculated head-to-head against the Republican candidates. Only races with a candidate from each party are considered.

The spread between the best and worst performing candidates has shrunk over the years, consistent with the increase in straight-ticket voting. In 1994, the spread between Bob Bullock, the winning candidate for LTGOV, and Marvin Gregory, the candidate for AGRIC, was 24.7%. This translates into roughly a quarter of voters chose Democrat Bob Bullock and Republican Rick Perry.

In 2010, the spread between GOV nominee Bill White and AG nominee Barbara Ann Radnofsky was just 9.1%. Essentially, just one voter out of 10 chose Democrat Bill White and Republican Greg Abbott. In 2012, the spread shrunk all the way down to just 2.4%, meaning just one out of every 40 voters chose Democrat Michelle Petty for SC6 and Republican Christi Craddick for RRC.

The bigger the spread, the greater chance a Democratic candidate has of winning enough defectors to break through and potentially win a statewide race. With smaller spreads, the only way a Democratic candidate can win statewide is if the overall average of all Democratic statewide candidates rises back to levels not seen since 1996, the first year Republicans swept all statewide offices. The last gubernatorial election represented an all-time low for the average Democratic statewide candidate (36.5% head-to-head against the Republican candidate). In 2012, the average candidate fared the best since 1998, but still just barely above 42%.

If the average statewide candidate is running at 42%, then a victorious candidate needs 8% (1 out of every 12) of voters to “defect” by choosing him or her instead of the Republican. Bill White got 7% of voters to defect in 2010, but the average was much lower than 42% and he remained underwater.

Top Statewide Deflections Since 1992

No statewide Democratic candidate has fared more than 10% above the average statewide candidate since 1994. Several have finished 5% or more above average, but no candidate can win unless the average of everybody else is above 45%. That’s happened once since 1994. In 2008, a wave of new voters excited about Barack Obama’s candidacy lifted the Democratic ticket to the closest it has come to a statewide victory since 1998. Down-ballot Democrats flourished, resulting in an almost evenly divided House. Two years later, Democrats bottomed out statewide, lost any realistic chance of taking back the House and saw their hegemony over county governments disappear.

Statewide Democrats are in a deep hole. One way to climb out is money.

See our previous commentaries, “Political Climate Entering the General Election, Part 1” (June 2, 2014), “Political Climate Entering the General Election, Part 2” (June 10, 2014) and “Political Climate Entering the General Election, Part 3” (July 3, 2014) for more analysis of statewide trends that could impact statewide elections. This series on the political climate of the general election will continue. 

2014 Political Climate Part4 PDF