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For all of the hype,...

For all of the hype, Mississippi’s 2023 elections were a low-turnout repeat of 2019

By: Russ Latino - November 9, 2023

With over $20 million spent on the Governor’s race, voter participation declined by over 10 percent and the margin of victory for Reeves was the same from 2019.

The race for Governor sucked all the air out of the room in Mississippi’s elections this year. It was wildly hyped both in-state and nationally as a contest that could see Mississippi’s incumbent Republican Governor Tate Reeves fall.

Over $20 million was spent between Reeves and his Democratic challenger, Brandon Presley. Presley raised an unprecedented amount, primarily from out-of-state donors, and very likely will have outspent Reeves when the dust settles.

The result: a large decline in the number of voters and essentially the same margin of victory for Reeves as in his 2019 race against former Attorney General Jim Hood. When the fog of war lifted Tuesday night, Reeves was up with nearly 52 percent of the vote to Presley’s 47 percent. Reeves beat Hood by 5 points.

As the reported voter totals presently stand, 2023 saw approximately 11 percent fewer voters cast a ballot for Governor. The decline was spread equally between the two leading candidates. In 2019, two third party candidates drew 1.3 percent of the vote. In 2023, Gwendolyn Gray–who dropped out of the race, but not in time to be removed from the ballot–received 1.4 percent.

Only eight counties saw an increase in voters. 34 experienced a decrease of at least 1,000 voters. Hinds County is the biggest pocket of voters in the state and a Democratic stronghold. Presley needed to run up the score there to have any chance of unseating Reeves. There are presently 8,000 fewer voters than just four years ago.

As an aside, this is also pretty strong indicator that the ballot madness that unfolded in Hinds County on Tuesday had nothing to do with high turnout, but was likely a byproduct of the Hinds County Election Commission not following the law, which requires printing ballots for 60 percent of registered voters in each precinct before Election Day.

The victors in each county in 2023 largely followed the script from 2019. Reeves won every county he had won in 2019, with the exception of Lowndes and Grenada. Presley won every county that Hood won in 2019, with the exception of Madison and Lafayette. Each of these flipped counties was tight in 2019 and relatively tight in 2023.

In almost all of the other counties, the margin of victory for the winning candidate was very close to the margin in 2019. A complete breakdown of the total votes, margins of victory, and turnout differential in each county between 2019 and 2023 is in the table below.

From the inception of the campaign, Presley's "tightrope" challenge was three-fold. He needed to:

  • Convince a block of Republican voters that he was conservative enough to crossover and vote for him.
  • Drive up African American turnout in line with performances by former-President Barack Obama, or even Mike Espy in his failed 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate.
  • Establish to Democratic national donors that he was not too conservative to bring in dollars and buy name ID.

These goals were counter to each other, such that success in one area might diminish the chances of success in another.

Presley clearly was successful raising money. And much speculation, often without any actual evidence or on the back of reported "anonymous operatives," occurred on his progress toward the first two objectives.

The final tally, however, suggests Presley had no more success than Jim Hood at enthusing the African American base of the Democratic Party or in convincing Republicans he was not that different than them. Hinds County, as an example, is predominately African American. It appears Presley will underperform Obama there by approximately 18,000 votes, Espy by approximately 11,000 votes, and Hood by approximately 5,000 votes.

Tuesday morning, I mentioned that the race was likely a 4-5 point contest in Reeves' favor and predicted a 51-47-2 race in interviews. I could have been wrong, of course. No one has a crystal ball, but this was also not a Miss Cleo-level shot in the dark. The evidence of the likely outcome was there for anyone who wanted to look objectively.

The only legitimate polls conducted all had Reeves up outside of the margin of error. Then there was the fact that he is an incumbent that had been elected to statewide office five times. Add on that he is a Republican in a state that has been dominated by Republicans for twenty years.

Party inertia is a thing and past elections confirm this point. Combing through previous elections' results, it becomes very apparent that most counties in Mississippi are not "swing" counties. The counties Democratic and Republican candidates win, they win big. When a county is regularly giving one party a 40 or 50 point win, it's unlikely those voters suddenly drop their partisan hats.

Brandon Presley ran a very good campaign. He is a very good retail candidate. It did not matter. If 2023 exposes anything it exposes that there is presently a ceiling for Democratic candidates in Mississippi around 47 percent, regardless of how much they raise or how good the candidate is.

One final thought: top of the ticket races matter for turnout, but so too do bottom of the ticket races. The Democratic Party failed to qualify candidates for a supermajority of legislative seats--meaning that even if they had won every seat they qualified in, Republicans would have still held a supermajority in the Legislature. There also were huge swaths of the state with uncontested county races, both for Republicans and Democrats. The fewer reasons people have to go to the polls, the fewer people will go to the polls.

About the Author(s)
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Russ Latino

Russ is a proud Mississippian and the founder of Magnolia Tribune Institute. His research and writing have been published across the country in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, USA Today, The Hill, and The Washington Examiner, among other prominent publications. Russ has served as a national spokesman with outlets like Politico and Bloomberg. He has frequently been called on by both the media and decisionmakers to provide public policy analysis and testimony. In founding Magnolia Tribune Institute, he seeks to build on more than a decade of organizational leadership and communications experience to ensure Mississippians have access to news they can trust and opinion that makes them think deeply. Prior to beginning his non-profit career, Russ practiced business and constitutional law for a decade. Email Russ:
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