How should observers interpret last week’s Ohio Republican primary results for its open U.S. Senate seat? Several top vote-getters vied for the MAGA vote, but J.D. Vance, best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” won after being endorsed by former president Donald Trump.
Our research confirms this, finding that voters for these candidates shared similar beliefs — which were quite different from those who backed the more traditional candidate, state Sen. Matt Dolan, and Republican nonvoters.
MAGA supporters vs. traditional Republicans
In some ways, the Ohio Republican Senate primary appeared to offer a very good chance for a candidate from the party’s traditional wing. Three candidates split the MAGA vote. The establishment candidate, Dolan, is a seasoned politician, wealthy and fairly well-known, as his family owns the recently renamed major league baseball team, the Cleveland Guardians. But Dolan pulled in only 23 percent of the Republican vote.
To better understand Ohio Republican voters, we collaborated with colleagues at other universities to conduct an opt-in online survey with Qualtrics of 2,000 Ohio residents before the primary. The survey, which ran between April 21 and May 3, focused especially on likely primary voters; 600 respondents who were likely Republican voters. Of those, 138 said they would likely vote for Vance, 194 for Mandel, 98 for Gibbons, 74 for Dolan, and 386 said they were unlikely to cast a ballot in the primary. We weighted our sample to the known Republican primary electoral returns, as well as to Ohio benchmarks for race, education, age and gender.
First, we found that MAGA voters likely had difficulty choosing between Vance, Mandel and Gibbons. Supporters of all three candidates tended to claim a strong affinity for the MAGA movement, much more than Dolan supporters or Republicans who said they were unlikely to vote. These voters also were more likely to report “populist” attitudes in the survey than Dolan voters or the Republicans unlikely to vote, generally showing higher levels of distrust for politicians.
Vance’s voters were particularly anti-elite, with 46 percent strongly agreeing with the statement that “established politicians who claim to defend our interest only take care of themselves.” That’s more than 10 points higher than among those supporting the other top four candidates and 20 points higher than among Republicans who did not vote in the primary. Given these broad similarities, it seems likely that Trump’s endorsement of Vance helped tilt the race in his favor. Indeed, when respondents in our survey were asked which candidate the former president supported, 85 percent of Vance voters gave the correct response, compared with less than half of Mandel and Gibbons voters.
On the other hand, we do not find much difference between the policy views of Vance and Mandel supporters. For example, 49 percent of Vance and 47 percent of Mandel voters said a candidate’s position on abortion is “very important” to their vote choice, respectively. That’s well above the percentages for people who voted for the other candidates, which were 41 for Gibbons supporters, 30 for Dolan supporters and 35 for those who didn’t intend to vote. Vance and Mandel supporters also generally agreed on the importance of gun policy, education, taxes and crime, again at levels above those of those leaning toward other candidates.
More important than issue priorities was how voters wanted these candidates to behave in office. A large share of the Vance and Mandel voters reported that they did not want candidates to compromise, especially on these key issues. For example, 48 percent of Vance voters said they would be “very unlikely” to support a candidate who compromises on gun policy, and almost 52 percent said this about immigration. Mandel’s voters expressed similar, although somewhat weaker, sentiments; 41 percent of Mandel voters said they would be “very unlikely” to vote for a candidate who compromised on those two issues.
Dolan supporters, on the other hand, were much less likely to penalize candidates for not compromising; only 29 percent said compromise would be a big problem for gun policy, and the figure was 33 percent for compromise on immigration. If we want to learn more about why it is so hard for Congress to function, a good starting place might be primary electorates, particularly the most highly engaged partisans, who do not see compromise as a virtue in governing.
What election reforms might have changed the results?
Some observers argue that ranked-choice voting would prevent factional candidates from winning races without a majority — as happened in this case, in which Vance won the primary with less than a third of voters. But given some of these similarities between Vance and Mandel voters, we speculate that the two leading MAGA candidates would have benefited more from ranked-choice voting than either of the moderate candidates. If MAGA voters had voted for Vance or Mandel in first place, they’d likely have placed the other second — giving one of them a majority.
While changing party nomination rules would not likely have reduced the influence of MAGA populists, bringing in more voters might have — especially those who typically do not vote in primaries. Unofficial tallies by the Ohio secretary of state suggest that just 1 in 5 Ohio voters cast a ballot in the open primaries. (In Ohio, a citizen does not need to affiliate with either party to vote in the primaries). Ohio residents who identified as Republican but did not intend to vote in the primaries were less likely to say they were affiliated with the MAGA movement; were somewhat less populist; and were more willing to accept compromise on the issues. But they weren’t involved in picking the party’s general election candidate.
Reformers might instead wish to get rid of partisan primaries altogether and hold a nonpartisan first round election, allowing the top four vote-getters to advance to the second round (the general election). Voters could then rank these candidates in order of preference. That’s how Alaska’s primary will work in August. There’s no guarantee this kind of winnowing will produce the candidate most desired by the state’s majority, but the hope is that voters will have choices beyond the extremists who appear to be winning in conventional primaries.
Raymond J. La Raja (@raylaraja) is an associate dean and professor in political science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, associate director of the UMass Poll and co-author of Hometown Inequality (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Scholars who contributed to this study of the Ohio primaries include:
Sarah E. Anderson (@Prof_SEAnderson) is a professor and associate dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California Santa Barbara and coauthor of “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Daniel M. Butler is professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis and coauthor of “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Laurel Harbridge-Yong is associate professor of political science and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, and coauthor of “Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).