How many Democrats does it take?

Chris Eachus is helping advance the study of political science with his latest senatorial campaign.

The Orange County Democrat’s rematch with Sen. William Larkin (R-New Windsor) will again test the role of voter enrollment on election outcomes. So far, Eachus (D-New Windsor) has proved that a Democratic enrollment advantage will only get him so far when competing for a seat in the state Senate.

This is a lesson Democratic candidates for state Senate have learned the hard way in recent years (including presidential years), especially in their attempts to wrestle control of seats in Long Island. It’s a reality that has helped Republicans maintain control of the legislature’s upper house despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans in the state by a two to one margin.

Currently, more than half of the Senate districts represented by Republicans have more enrolled Democrats than Republicans. (It’s interesting to note that there isn’t a reverse anomaly, as the 14 districts with a Republican enrollment advantage are represented by Republicans)

gop-democratic-districts

One obvious conclusion is that the impact of voter enrollment can be mitigated by an incumbent in the race. This idea was reinforced by this spring’s special election for the 9th Senate District, which has an overwhelming Democratic enrollment edge and was won repeatedly by Republican Dean Skelos. In the special election, when it was an open seat, there was no incumbency factor to impact the enrollment numbers.

For the most part, new Republicans have only been able to win Democratic leaning Senate districts in non-presidential years when turnout favors Republicans. Even the 2012 victory by Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) in the 4th Senate District highlights the importance of an incumbency because he represented a large portion of the district in the Assembly and was already well known in the area.

Additionally, if an enrollment advantage was key to victory then it would be safe to assume that Democrats would target the Republican controlled districts where Democrats have an enrollment edge. The reverse is actually true, with Republicans from the four districts with the largest Democratic enrollment edge (22nd, 56th, 7th, 55th) facing one serious challenge.

In his first challenge to Larkin, Eachus, was considered a “serious threat” when he first announced his candidacy.  His prospects were buoyed that spring by redistricting, which doubled the Democratic lead over Republicans in the district. The advantage grew from less than 5,000 voters to more than 10,000 voters on Election Day in 2012[i].

39th-sd-enrollment-2012

On Election Day, though, the results did not reflect the voter enrollment, with Larkin winning about 52.5 percent of the vote in the district. Eachus collected 49,746 votes and Larkin got 54,921, with a difference of about 5,200 votes.

2012-results

In their shared home county of Orange County, which accounted for nearly 76 percent of the voting, Larkin won about 53.2 percent of the vote. And while Eachus had his largest percentage defeat in Ulster County, with Larkin winning by more than 16 percentage points, the margin was only about 1,200 votes.

The only area that Eachus won included the two towns in Rockland County that had been added to the district as part of redistricting. Seen through the performance of the Assembly candidates in this area, though, his victory is less impressive. The Democratic Assembly candidates in the two towns received about 58 percent of the vote, while Eachus only collected 53 percent.

The 2012 results are a reminder that voter enrollment is just one factor in forecasting elections, with fundraising, incumbency, top ballot races and issues also playing an important role[ii].

But as we head into the fall elections and with Eachus again poised to take on Larkin, it is definitely worth a look at how the voter enrollment has changed in the last four years. The most telling difference is the continued growth of Democratic voters and loss of Republican voters in the district, with the advantage growing to about 12,700 voters (the 5th highest margin among Republican controlled seats).

39th-sd-trends

The enrollment change means that Republicans make up a slightly smaller portion (1.2 percentage points) of the district than in 2012. The largest growth is actually in independent or “blank” voters, who grew their share of the district by about 1.1 percentage points.

39th-sd-enrollment-2016

The growth in the Democratic enrollment edge over the past few four years is equal to almost half of Larkin’s previous margin of victory over Eachus. In the context of those results, the new landscape should result in a stronger starting place for Eachus (and that’s about it).

Until we get more evidence, it seems like voter enrollment won’t be the deciding factor in the 39th Senate District and Larkin will only lose with a combination of events inside and outside the district, including the development of a major campaign issue in the district (maybe water issues in Newburgh or legislative pay raises), top of the ticket news (a Donald Trump implosion) and more even campaign spending.

[i] All references to voters are based on “active” voters.

[ii] Eachus has highlighted Larkin’s 3:1 spending advantage in 2012, so we will definitely examine fundraising in the future.

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