Rethink Mississippi: How Robert Gray’s Upset Was More Than a Century in Making

Photo courtesy of Robert Gray for Governor Facebook
Photo courtesy of Robert Gray for Governor Facebook

Mississippi’s anachronistic primary system made it possible for a mystery man to win the Democratic nomination for governor.

This is the first of a two-part analysis of the structural flaws exposed by Robert Gray’s victory in the August 4th Democratic primary. Part Two will detail specific reforms that could improve our electoral process.

The announcement of the winner in last week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary sounded more like an answer in Jeopardy! — it came in the form of a question.

Who is Robert Gray?

Not a single one of the 147,043 people who voted for Mr. Gray knew who he was when they went to the polls. That’s no exaggeration: he made no effort to campaign, and he said he forgot to vote for himself. Even his mother thought she was voting for a different Robert Gray.

His opponents Vicki Slater and Valerie Short — legitimate candidates who actively sought the nomination — didn’t know either. They never crossed paths with Gray on the campaign trail. He didn’t spend a single dollar on his candidacy. He didn’t even have a Facebook page.

In the days since the election, the questions have shifted from who to how. And while no explanation is definitive, Gray almost certainly benefited from an uncommon confluence of factors.

The two active gubernatorial candidates had never run for elected office before, so neither possessed high name recognition or a pre-existing constituency. Slater and Short raised more money than Gray’s $0, but neither came close to what successful Democratic candidates have spent in past primaries. In the end, his opponents’ relative anonymity allowed Gray to capitalize, inadvertently, on his one major advantage: he was running against two women in the only state that has never elected a female governor or member of Congress. Without anything else to distinguish among them, more than half of primary voters opted for the man.

(In my opinion, too much credit has been given to Gray’s name appearing first on the ballot: Tim Johnson, the Democratic establishment’s preferred candidate for lieutenant governor, was listed second on the ballot. He prevailed easily over his male opponent despite spending less money than Slater.)

No matter whether you buy that explanation, I believe that the unique circumstances of Gray’s anomaly are less important than the conditions that made such a result possible in the first place. In other words, our question should change from, “Why did 51 percent of Democratic voters mark Robert Gray on August 4?” to, “Why did a majority of Democratic primary voters go to the polls unprepared to vote for the state’s top office?”

As I’ll explain down the page, the conditions that enabled Gray’s victory are deeply embedded in Mississippi’s anachronistic election process, a system designed for one-party white supremacist rule that has not kept pace with the expansion of voting rights or partisan realignment. As a result, the 21st century Democratic primary electorate is distorted through 19th century laws and traditions. Problems occur when these three vestiges of the old regime work in concert:

1.) Candidates for every state and local office can declare a partisan affiliation, but voters can not register with a party. Any voter can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary.

2.) Many local officials and their challengers still run as Democrats without GOP opposition. Even in many majority-Republican counties, the Democratic primary operates as the de facto general election for certain local offices.

3.) Local races (of which there are many) drive turnout even when state offices are contested. The Democratic primary attracts more voters than the Republican primary despite GOP dominance in statewide elections. A large share of the Democratic primary voters do not support the Democratic nominees in the general election.

The roots of this system begin — as so many things do in Mississippi — in the era following the Civil War.

Read the rest of the article, complete with informational graphics here.


Jake McGraw is the public policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute and the editor of Rethink Mississippi. A native of Oxford, Jake studied public policy and economics at the University of Mississippi and economic history at the University of Oxford. He currently lives in Jackson. You can contact Jake at jake@winterinstitute.org.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Meh, the liberal “e-lights” in the state Dem party and DNC are just simply embarrassed at how poorly their “establishment” candidates “performed,” so they blame the winner’s gender. Typical liberal blame-shifting and belly-aching.

    Maybe if the Dems and their candidates had actually put some time into getting to know their constituents (instead of viewing them as plebes) then maybe they would have had some name recognition.

    Good luck Mr. Gray, Mr. Smith is smiling down on ya…

    http://images.static-bluray.com/movies/covers/37096_front.jpg

  2. …’legitimate candidates.’ What the hell is Robert Gray??? Pastrami??? If not a ‘legitimate’ candidate. Your extreme prejudice and dissatisfaction at Mr. Gray’s victory taints your entire article.

  3. Why was Vicki Slater a “legitimate” candidate and Mr. Gray was not? Who decides who is legitimate? The state Dem. Election Committee? Bunch of idiots. Can’t find their butts with both hands. They don’t come close to representing Mississippi’s democrats.

  4. nonsense. People vote in whatever primary they want. same as many states. The local candidates chose to run as Democrats..they dont have to. Means nothing.

  5. With a name like Robert Gray, descended from one of the most respected Clans in Scotland, that thar be’in the “Argyle Stewart Clan”. GRAY’s ave served & defended the people since William The Conquer came across the Channel from Normandy & gave the people the Magna Carta, the Document that all Constitutions & Law sprang from. Robert Gray will no doubt look after & defend people’s rights, it’s in his blood line.

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