Runoffs and good governors

As Georgians watch a nasty primary runoff, one wonders whether such a second round of elections is worth it. Wouldn’t it just be better to declare the one who gets the most votes in the first round the winner, and spare us the extended intra-party battle?

In reality, by insisting that the winner get more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary or general election, a Southern practice may well be leading toward good government.

In many states, the candidate who wins the most votes wins the post, even if he or she gets less than 50 percent of the vote. In fact, we’ve seen candidates in states win a primary with as low as 27 percent in a crowded field, or less than 40 percent of the vote in a general election.

But some states insist that the winner has to get 50 percent of the vote, in a primary or general election. And they’ll hold a runoff between the top two candidates to get it. This tends to be a Southern practice, too.

Among the nine states with such runoffs in 2010, eight are Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma and South Carolina), according to the Federal Voting Assistance Program. South Dakota is the only non-Southern state to do this.

Such runoffs can be somewhat expensive, but are they worth it?

To determine this, I analyzed all gubernatorial elections between 1990 and 2004 to determine which candidates received less than 50 percent of the vote in a primary or general election, using the FairVote archive’s “Plurality Index.” This election data is from the Almanac of American Politics, compiled by Michael Barone, Richard E. Cowan and Grant Ujifusa, copyrighted by the National Journal Group.

This list has some pretty interesting names. Some, like Fife Symington (Arizona), John Rowland (Connecticut) and Rod Blagojevich (Illinois) are either in prison or well on their way.

It also includes a recalled governor (Gray Davis, California), governors and candidates tied to scandals (Paul Patton, Kentucky; Jon Grunseth, Minnesota; Bruce Sundlun, Rhode Island), and some who couldn’t even win renomination from their own party (Bob Holden, Missouri; Joan Finney, Kansas; Barbara Roberts, Oregon).

But aren’t there a lot of scandal-tarred candidates and politicians? In analyzing the list of 66 governors and candidates who won a primary or general election with less than 50 percent of the vote, 21 (almost one-third) of them went down to electoral defeat, a lost reelection bid or disgrace.

Some who won public office with less than 50 percent of a primary or general election have gone on to win a second term. But even these candidates rarely leave a legacy, where their successor keeps the governor’s mansion in their party’s hands. From the list of 66 governor candidates, I removed several cases where the outcome is still pending in 2010 (Maine, Oregon, etc.). Of the remaining 59 cases, only five candidates (8.47 percent) elected with less than 50 percent of the vote went on to have terms so successful that their succeeding party nominee wins the gubernatorial election.

Of course, states with runoffs don’t always have flawless candidates. There’s soon-to-be-ex-Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who won his primary in a second round of elections, as well as the state of Louisiana, which has a runoff system.

But the data generally suggests that, while runoffs won’t weed out every bad candidate, the alternative may be worse.

So try and tough out another round of robo-calls, flyers stuffed in your mailbox, and negative TV ads. The alternative could be worse. Repeat after me: “Governor … Rod … Blagojevich …”

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science at LaGrange College; tures@lagrange.edu.