Hedging the bet on elections

Johnson Britt will be missed as Robeson’s district sttorney. His legacy should be the advice he gives those who follow him. A district attorney should not simply seek convictions, but justice. Britt will leave huge shoes to fill as he used his office seeking what is right in pursuing justice.

The judiciary and law enforcement are instances where many question the value of partisan elections. While ideology has a lot to do with how law is written, it should have little to do with how it is enforced. Johnson is a prime example, ensuring the even hand of justice was applied, leaving politics at the door.

But next year, judges will have their registration listed on ballots along with district attorney and sheriff candidates. When Robeson was overwhelmingly Democrat, it didn’t matter. But today, candidates struggle a bit regarding strategy as Robeson becomes more balanced in registration. If you’re really a conservative candidate, do you run as a Blue Dog Democrat or Republican? Well, no model is perfect, but here’s an example.

Let’s look at a recent race to apply a model. This applies to any seat and is just an example of how running in a primary is different from running in the general.

The last sheriff’s race was 2014. Democratic primary turnout was 22.08 percent, or 16,467 voters. Voter turnout in the general election was 33.82 percent, or 25,332 voters.

Unaffiliated voters can vote in either Democrat or Republican primaries but seldom do in large numbers. So for every vote a conservative gains in the primary he may be losing two he would have gotten in the general. Besides, if a voter tells a candidate his registration depends on how he votes, the voter probably wasn’t going to vote for that candidate anyway. It’s just an excuse as the voter is admitting affiliation means more to them than the candidate.

The significance is that 8,865 more voters cast ballots in the general. This 53.8 percent increase is pretty typical. If a Democratic candidate is dependent on precincts where Democrat registration exceeds 60 to 70 percent, then discounting 30 percent or more votes doesn’t make a difference.

But if the candidate has precincts where registration is fairly split within that 40 to 60 percent registration cone, then running in a Democrat primary discounting voters who may have voted for the candidate in the general could cost the candidate the election.

Add multiple candidates into the mix and the odds change considerably. A district attorney or judge’s race may only have a couple of candidates, so if a conservative candidate doesn’t need a 53.8 percent increase in conservative votes to win, then running in the primary as a Democrat doesn’t matter. But candidates forget they are writing off a lot of votes in a Democratic primary they would have picked up in the general.

Take the sheriff’s race again. A candidate needs 40 percent to prevent an expensive runoff. Using 2014 numbers, a candidate will need 6,586 votes if 16,467 are cast. Five candidates vying for that vote share is possible but unlikely.

A candidate starts asking himself, which is easier? Five candidates vying for 40 percent of 16,467 votes in a primary or two candidates vying for 50 percent plus one vote out of 25,332 voters in the general.

Think about it. Do you try for the largest piece of a pie (40 percent) split five ways with fewer voters or do you try for the largest piece of a pie (50 percent plus 1) split two ways with more voters?

We haven’t even factored in demographics. A lone candidate of one demographic only has to do as well as the 2014 losing candidate (Watts) to win in a large field against multiple demographics. Underdogs have their best chance in large field primaries.

The point is Robeson politics is more complicated, as old campaign plans no longer work. And we probably won’t miss Johnson Britt for long. He’ll be back.

Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.